I am providence the life.., p.57

I Am Providence: The Life and Times of H. P. Lovecraft (2 VOLUMES), page 57


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

Larger Font   Reset Font Size   Smaller Font   Night Mode Off   Night Mode

  The overall implication of “Arthur Jermyn” is that all white civilisation is derived from this primal race in Africa, a race that has corrupted itself by intermingling with apes. This is the only explanation for the narrator’s opening statement, “If we knew what we are, we should do as Sir Arthur Jermyn did [i.e., commit suicide]”: we may not have a white ape in our immediate ancestry, but we are all the products of an ultimate miscegenation. More broadly, Lovecraft is suggesting that the distinction between apes and human beings is a highly tenuous one—not merely in the case of the Jermyns, but of us all. Recall “At the Root” (1918): “We must recognise the essential underlying savagery in the animal called man . . . civilisation is but a slight coverlet beneath which the dominant beast sleeps lightly and ever ready to awake.”

  Lovecraft made two suggestive remarks on the sources and genesis of this tale. First, he wrote to Arthur Harris: “The only tale of mine to be published in sections is ‘Arthur Jermyn’, & this was written with that form in mind.”[10] What this means is that the tale was written expressly for the Wolverine (edited by Horace L. Lawson), where the tale appeared serially in the issues for March and June 1921. The two sections fall neatly into an account of the history of the Jermyn line and the narrative of Arthur Jermyn himself. Lovecraft’s second comment is still more suggestive:

  [The] origin [of “Arthur Jermyn”] is rather curious—and far removed from the atmosphere it suggests. Somebody had been harassing me into reading some work of the iconoclastic moderns—these young chaps why pry behind exteriors and unveil nasty hidden motives and secret stigmata—and I had nearly fallen asleep over the tame backstairs gossip of Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio. The sainted Sherwood, as you know, laid bare the dark area which many whited village lives concealed, and it occurred to me that I, in my weirder medium, could probably devise some secret behind a man’s ancestry which would make the worst of Anderson’s disclosures sound like the annual report of a Sabbath school. Hence Arthur Jermyn.[11]

  As I shall discuss later, it was just at this time when Lovecraft (perhaps in part through the influence of Frank Belknap Long) was attempting to bring himself literarily up to date by investigating the modernists. If the above is to be taken at its face value, it suggests Lovecraft’s dawning realisation that weird fiction could be a mode of social criticism as probing in its way as the grimmest literary realism. “Arthur Jermyn,” of course, represents only a minor foray of this sort, but a much later tale of which it is a source—“The Shadow over Innsmouth”—is a very different proposition.

  “Facts concerning the Late Arthur Jermyn and His Family” was, as I have mentioned, first published as a serial in the Wolverine for March and June 1921. This is the only appearance until the recent corrected edition in which the full, correct title as recorded on the surviving typescript was printed. It got a favourable notice in “The Vivisector” for November 1921, written (as I shall demonstrate later) by Alfred Galpin:

  “Facts Concerning the Late Arthur Jermyn and His Family”, by Mr. Lovecraft, shows another phase of that writer’s gloomy but powerful genius. It is perfect in execution, restrained in manner, complete, and marked by Mr. Lovecraft’s uniquely effective handling of introductory and concluding portions. The legend is not so powerful as many of Mr. Lovecraft’s dreamings have been, but it is unquestionably original and does not derive from Poe, Dunsany, or any other of Mr. Lovecraft’s favorites and predecessors. Its affiliations are rather closer with Ambrose Bierce, and I personally should place it beside much of Bierce’s best work without fearing for the fame of the United’s representative.[12]

  The comparison to Bierce seems to me a trifle strained, and may apply only in the relative plainness of the style and the brooding pessimism of the opening. Whether it is “unquestionably original” is another matter. I have not found any direct influence, but one wonders whether a novel that was serialised in the Cavalier (a Munsey magazine) in April 1912—The Ape at the Helm by Patrick Gallagher, which Sam Moskowitz describes as dealing with “a ship that loses its first mate and finds the captain taking aboard a half-man, half-ape from an island”[13]—is a source for the story. Since Lovecraft declares that “I read every number of The Cavalier,”[14] he must have read Gallagher’s novel; I myself, however, have not done so, so can only note the very general similarity of conception between it and Lovecraft’s story.

  We now come to “Poetry and the Gods,” published in the United Amateur for September 1920 as by “Anna Helen Crofts and Henry Paget-Lowe.” Aside from the two stories written with Winifred Virginia Jackson, this is Lovecraft’s only signed collaboration with a woman writer. Some have believed Anna Helen Crofts to be a pseudonym (perhaps for Jackson), but she appears under her own name in the UAPA membership lists, residing at 343 West Main Street in North Adams, Massachusetts, in the far northwestern corner of the state. I have no idea how Lovecraft came in touch with her or why he chose to collaborate on this tale; he never mentions it or his coauthor in any correspondence I have ever seen.

  “Poetry and the Gods” tells the somewhat mawkish story of Marcia, a young woman who, though “outwardly a typical product of modern civilisation,” feels strangely out of tune with her time. She picks up a magazine and reads a piece of free verse, finding it so evocative that she lapses into a languid dream in which Hermes comes to her and wafts her to Parnassus where Zeus is holding court. She is shown six individuals sitting before the Corycian cave; they are Homer, Dante, Shakespeare, Milton, Goethe, and Keats. “These were those messengers whom the Gods had sent to tell men that Pan had passed not away, but only slept; for it is in poetry that Gods speak to men.” Zeus tells Marcia that she will meet a man who is “our latest-born messenger,” a man whose poetry will somehow bring order to the chaos of the modern age. Sure enough, she later meets this person, “the young poet of poets at whose feet sits all the world,” and he thrills her with his poetry.

  This is surely one of the most peculiar items in Lovecraft’s fictional corpus, not only for its utterly unknown genesis but for its anomalous theme. At whose urging was this story written? The fact that Crofts’s name is placed before Lovecraft’s does not mean much, as Lovecraft would have considered it gentlemanly to have taken second billing; much of the language clearly is Lovecraft’s, and it is difficult to imagine what Crofts’s contribution can have been. The prose verges on Dunsanianism, especially Hermes’ long speech to Marcia; but in reality this bit sounds like a conventional translation of the period from Greek or Latin literature. It is facile to say that the idea of using a female protagonist must have come from Crofts, but perhaps not so facile to think that the description of her attire (“in a low-cut evening dress of black”) is not likely to have been arrived at by a man so seemingly unworldly as Lovecraft.

  Then there is the long bit of free verse in the story. Is this Crofts’s addition? I have found only one other contribution by Crofts in the amateur press, but it is a one-page story, “Life” (United Amateur, March 1921), and not a poem; she could, however, have published poetry in other journals. Lovecraft, of course, cannot help poking fun at the specimen: “It was only a bit of vers libre, that pitiful compromise of the poet who overleaps prose yet falls short of the divine melody of numbers . . .”; but the passage goes on to say: “but it had in it all the unstudied music of a bard who lives and feels, and who gropes ecstatically for unveiled beauty. Devoid of regularity, it yet had the wild harmony of winged, spontaneous words; a harmony missing from the formal, convention-bound verse she had known.” The poetic fragment—rather effective in its imagistic way—is certainly not meant parodically, and is presumably supposed to be by that “poet of poets” whom Marcia meets later. The encounters with Homer and the rest are a trifle embarrassing, as each soberly spouts some familiar chestnut which Marcia appreciates even though she does not know Greek, German, or Italian and hence cannot understand three of the six bards. On the whole, “Poetry and the Gods” is simply a curiosity, and will become of interest only if more infor
mation on its writing and its collaborator emerges.

  A more representative story is “From Beyond,” written on November 16, 1920, as noted on the autograph manuscript. Like so many of Lovecraft’s early tales, it is severely flawed but full of significance for its adumbration of themes that are developed to much better advantage in later works. This is the histrionic story of Crawford Tillinghast, a scientist who has devised a machine that will “break down the barriers” erected by our five senses that limit our perception of phenomena. He shows to his friend, the narrator, “a pale, outré colour or blend of colours” that he maintains is ultraviolet, ordinarily invisible to the human eye. As he continues his experiment, the narrator begins to perceive all sorts of amorphous, jellylike objects drifting through what he previously thoguht was empty air; he even sees them “brushing past me and occasionally walking or drifting through my supposedly solid body.” Later, as the experiment becomes increasingly peculiar and as Tillinghast begins shouting madly about the creatures he controls through his machine, the narrator suddenly fires a shot from a pistol, destroying the machine. Tillinghast is found dead of apoplexy.

  This tale remained unpublished until its appearance in the Fantasy Fan for June 1934; at this time or earlier, Lovecraft made several changes that are not recorded on the surviving autograph manuscript. In the first place, the scientist’s name has been changed from Henry Annesley. Perhaps Lovecraft thought this a little too colourless; Crawford Tillinghast is a combination of two celebrated old families in the history of Providence (as Lovecraft notes in The Case of Charles Dexter Ward: “. . . the great brigs of the Browns, Crawfords, and Tillinghasts”) and befits a tale set, however nominally, in Providence: Tillinghast resides in an “ancient, lonely house set back from Benevolent Street,” on College Hill near Brown University. There may in fact be a subtle historical in-joke here, since in the late eighteenth century property on Benevolent Street was owned, on one side of the street, by Joseph Crawford, and, on the other, by a J. Tillinghast.[15] Another curious addition is the narrator’s account of why he has a revolver, something “I always carried after dark since the night I was held up in East Providence.” To my knowledge, Lovecraft was never himself held up in East Providence or anywhere else; but perhaps this phrase was added after his frequent visits to the weird writer C. M. Eddy and his wife in East Providence, then and now a rather seedy community.

  The true significance of the tale, however, is its spectacular idea of expanding the range of sense-perception to make visible what we otherwise think of as empty space. As one studies the wording of the story, it becomes clear that it is little more than a sort of extrapolation of some conceptions in Hugh Elliot’s Modern Science and Materialism. Elliot’s book not merely helped to firm up Lovecraft’s early metaphysics, but also triggered his imagination. Each of the following three entries in his commonplace book have fairly precise analogues in Elliot’s work:

  34 Moving away from earth more swiftly than light—past gradually unfolded—horrible revelation.

  35 Special beings with special senses from remote universes. Advent of an external universe to view.

  36 Disintegration of all matter to electrons and finally empty space assured, just as devolution of energy to radiant heat is known. Case of acceleration—man passes into space.

  The first entry relates to the old conception (now rendered false by relativity) that it is possible to travel faster than the speed of light and that in doing so one would go backward in time. The third entry is merely an echo of the notion of entropy. For our present concerns, it is the second entry that is of greatest relevance, since it echoes the passage I have already quoted from Elliot in which he expresses the bold conjecture of how the universe might appear to us if we had a thousand senses. Compare this with Tillinghast’s utterance near the beginning of “From Beyond”:

  “What do we know,” he had said, “of the world and the universe about us? Our means of receiving impressions are absurdly few, and our notions of surrounding objects infinitely narrow. We see things only as we are constructed to see them, and can gain no idea of their absolute nature. With five feeble senses we pretend to comprehend the boundlessly complex cosmos, yet other beings with a wider, stronger, or different range of senses might not only see very differently the things we see, but might see and study whole worlds of matter, energy, and life which lie close at hand yet can never be detected with the senses we have. . . .”

  When Tillinghast shows the narrator the anomalous colour, he asks him, “Do you know what that is? . . . That is ultra-violet.” This is a direct echo of a passage in Elliot in which he mentions, “Not only are our senses few, but they are extremely limited in range,” and he goes on specifically to cite the case of ultraviolet rays as one of the many phenomena we cannot see.

  But the clearest borrowing from Elliot relates to the central weird phenomenon of the tale—the fact that every particle of space is populated by a mass of loathsome creatures that can flow through our own bodies. This is really nothing more than a horrific presentation of the common fact that most material objects consist largely of empty space. Elliot writes about this notion at length:

  Let us now . . . see what matter would look like if magnified to, say, a thousand million diameters, so that the contents of a small thimble appeared to become the size of the earth. Even under this great magnification, the individual electrons would still be too small to be seen by the naked eye. . . . The first circumstance that strikes us is that nearly the whole structure of matter consists of the empty spaces between electrons. . . . It ceases, therefore, to be remarkable that X-rays can penetrate matter and come out on the other side.

  “From Beyond” is, however, a very poorly written and conceived tale. Its use of the already hackneyed motif of the mad scientist (which entered weird fiction no later than Frankenstein) is crude to the point of caricature: “It is not pleasant to see a stout man suddenly grown thin, and it is even worse when the baggy skin becomes yellowed or greyed, the eyes sunken, circled, and uncannily glowing, the forehead veined and corrugated, and the hands tremulous and twitching.” Tillinghast’s speeches become comically grotesque in their self-important bombast; toward the end he makes the inexplicable assertion: “I have harnessed the shadows that stride from world to world to sow death and madness. . . . Space belongs to me, do you hear?” I am not even clear on some points of plot in the story. Some of Tillinghast’s servants have died inexplicably; did the monsters evoked by the machine kill them, or Tillinghast himself dispose of them? The story offers contradictory clues on the matter.

  But “From Beyond” is important for its adumbration of such issues as the expansion of sense-perception (we will see that several of Lovecraft’s later extraterrestrials possess more senses than human beings), the strange “colour or blend of colours” (perhaps the ultimate nucleus of “The Colour out of Space”), and the attempt to visualise what a supra-sensory world might be like. For these reasons, “From Beyond” must be regarded as an important formative tale in Lovecraft’s corpus—a tale that, like “Polaris” in a somewhat different way, shows him employing explicitly philosophical conceptions for the purpose of horror fiction.[16]

  The two stories, “Nyarlathotep” (a prose-poem) and “The Crawling Chaos” (written in collaboration with Winifred Virginia Jackson), must be considered together for a reason I shall discuss presently. “Nyarlathotep” was published in the issue of the United Amateur dated November 1920; but since the magazine was at this time habitually late, sometimes by two or three months, it is difficult to know exactly when the prose-poem was written. Lovecraft first discusses it in a letter to Rheinhart Kleiner dated December 14, 1920,[17] but it is unclear whether Lovecraft has sent the tale in manuscript to Kleiner or whether Kleiner has read the story in the presumably delayed United Amateur. The former seems somewhat more likely, since Lovecraft wrote the letter to accompany several recent stories he was then sending to Kleiner.

  “Nyarlathotep” is of interest both
intrinsically and for its genesis. Like “The Statement of Randolph Carter,” it is the direct product of a dream; but more to the point, the first paragraph was written “before I fully awaked,” as Lovecraft wrote to Kleiner. By “first paragraph” Lovecraft cannot be referring to the brief, fragmentary opening (“Nyarlathotep . . . the crawling chaos . . . I am the last . . . I will tell the audient void. . . .”) but the lengthy paragraph that follows; otherwise, his remark that he changed only three words of it would not be particularly noteworthy. In any case, the dream again involved Samuel Loveman, who writes Lovecraft the following note: “Don’t fail to see Nyarlathotep if he comes to Providence. He is horrible—horrible beyond anything you can imagine—but wonderful. He haunts one for hours afterward. I am still shuddering at what he showed.” Lovecraft notes that the peculiar name Nyarlathotep came to him in this dream, but one can conjecture at least a partial influence in the name of Dunsany’s minor god Mynarthitep (mentioned fleetingly in “The Sorrow of Search,” in Time and the Gods) or of the prophet Alhireth-Hotep (mentioned in The Gods of Pegana). Of course, -hotep is an Egyptian root, and Nyarlathotep is in fact said in the prose-poem to have come “out of Egypt . . . he was of the old native blood and looked like a Pharaoh.” In the dream Nyarlathotep is supposed to be a sort of “itinerant showman or lecturer who held forth in publick halls and aroused widespread fear and discussion with his exhibitions”—exhibitions that included “a horrible—possibly prophetic—cinema reel” and, later, “some extraordinary experiments with scientific and electrical apparatus.” Lovecraft decides to go hear Nyarlathotep, and the story follows the dream pretty closely up to the conclusion: Nyarlathotep’s lecture seems to inspire a sort of collective madness, and people march mechanically in various mindless formations, never to be heard of again.

Turn Navi Off
Turn Navi On
Scroll Up