I Am Providence: The Life and Times of H. P. Lovecraft (2 VOLUMES), page 58
“Nyarlathotep” is, plainly, an allegory on the downfall of civilisation—the first of many such ruminations in the length and breadth of Lovecraft’s fiction and his philosophical thought. In the tale we find ourselves in a “season of political and social upheaval” in which people “whispered warnings and prophecies which no one dared consciously repeat.” And what does the narrator see “shadowed on a screen” during Nyarlathotep’s cinema presentation? “And I saw the world battling against blackness; against the waves of destruction from ultimate space; whirling, churning; struggling around the dimming, cooling sun.” Civilisation’s downfall heralds the decline of the whole planet with the extinction of the sun. Later the world seems to be falling apart:
Once we looked at the pavement and found the blocks loose and displaced by grass, with scarce a line of rusted metal to shew where the tramways had run. And again we saw a tram-car, lone, windowless, dilapidated, and almost on its side. When we gazed around the horizon, we could not find the third tower by the river, and noticed that the silhouette of the second tower was ragged at the top.
The entire prose-poem is one of Lovecraft’s most powerful vignettes, and shows how deeply imbued was his mingled terror of and fascination with the decline of the West. The fact that Nyarlathotep “had risen up out of the blackness of twenty-seven centuries” places him at the end of the fourth dynasty of the Old Kingdom, either in the reign of Khufu (Cheops) in 2590–68 B.C.E. or in that of Khafre (Chephren) in 2559–35 B.C.E. Khafre, of course, is the builder of the Sphinx, and perhaps Lovecraft was wishing to draw indirectly upon the eternal mystery of this cryptic monument.
Can there be a real source for Nyarlathotep? Will Murray has made the provocative conjecture that this “itinerant showman” was based upon Nicola Tesla (1856–1943), the eccentric scientist and inventor who created a sensation at the turn of the century for his strange electrical experiments. Lovecraft mentions Tesla at least once in his correspondence—most tellingly in a letter in which he is free-associating about the events he recalls in the year 1900: “Nikola Tesla reports signals from Mars.” Physically, of course, Tesla looked nothing like Nyarlathotep: one biographer describes him as a “weird, storklike figure on the lecture platform in his white tie and tails” and “nearly seven feet tall” because of the cork soles he wore to protect himself during his electrical demonstrations. Nevertheless, there are enough suggestive similarities between Tesla’s and Nyarlathotep’s lecture performances—and the shock and disturbance they inspired—to make a connexion likely, even if, because of the dream-inspiration of “Nyarlathotep,” such a connexion can only be regarded as subconscious.
Nyarlathotep, of course, recurs throughout Lovecraft’s later fiction and becomes one of the chief “gods” in his invented pantheon. But he appears in such widely divergent forms that it may not be possible to establish a single or coherent symbolism for him; to say merely, as some critics have done, that he is a “shapeshifter” (something Lovecraft never genuinely suggests) is only to admit that even his physical form is not consistent from story to story, much less his thematic significance. But whatever the ultimate “meaning” of Nyarlathotep, he rarely made a more dramatic appearance than in the brief tale laconically bearing his name.
“The Crawling Chaos,” as will now be evident, must be considered in conjunction with “Nyarlathotep” only because the title is clearly derived from the previously cited opening of the prose-poem, although Nyarlathotep himself makes no appearance in the story. Lovecraft admits in a letter: “I took the title C. C. from my Nyarlathotep sketch . . . because I liked the sound of it.” I do not know how helpful this is in dating the collaboration; it cannot, at least, have been written before the prose-poem, hence probably does not date any earlier than December 1920. It was published in the United Co-operative for April 1921 as by “Elizabeth Berkeley and Lewis Theobald, Jun.” Lovecraft appears to allude to the genesis of the story in a letter of May 1920, in which he notes the previous collaboration with Jackson, “The Green Meadow”: “I will enclose—subject to return—an account of a Jacksonian dream which occurred in the early part of 1919, and which I am some time going to weave into a horror story . . .” It is, of course, not entirely certain whether this dream was the nucleus of “The Crawling Chaos”; but since there are no other story collaborations with Jackson, the conjecture seems likely.
In certain external features of the plot “The Crawling Chaos” is surprisingly reminiscent of “The Green Meadow”; but it is, on the whole, a somewhat more interesting tale than its predecessor, although still quite insubstantial. The narrator tells of his one experience with opium, when a doctor unwittingly gave him an overdose to ease his pain. After experiencing a sensation of falling, “curiously dissociated from the idea of gravity or direction,” he finds himself in a “strange and beautiful room lighted by many windows.” A sense of fear comes over him, and he realises that it is inspired by a monotonous pounding that seems to be coming from below the house in which he finds himself. Looking out a window, he sees that the pounding is caused by titanic waves that are rapidly washing away the piece of land on which the house stands, transforming the land into an ever-narrowing peninsula. Fleeing through the back door of the house, the narrator finds himself walking along a sandy path and rests under a palm tree. Suddenly a child of radiant beauty drops from the branches of the tree, and presently two other individuals—“a god and goddess they must have been”—appear. They waft the narrator into the air and are joined by a singing chorus of other heavenly individuals who wish to lead the narrator to the wondrous land of Teloe. But the pounding of the sea disrupts this throng, and in imagery very reminiscent of “Nyarlathotep” (“Down through the aether I saw the accursed earth turning, ever turning, with angry and tempestuous seas gnawing at wild desolate shores and dashing foam against the tottering towers of deserted cities”), the narrator appears to witness the destruction of the world.
“The Crawling Chaos” is redeemed only by its apocalyptic conclusion; for up to this point it has merely been a confused, verbose, histrionic dream-phantasy without focus or direction. Various points in the account carry the implication that the narrator is not actually dreaming or hallucinating but envisioning the far future of the world—a point made very clumsily by his conceiving of Rudyard Kipling as an “ancient” author. But the final passage is impressive on its own as a set piece, and is the sole connexion with the prose-poem that inspired the story’s title. It is manifest that the entire tale was written by Lovecraft; as with “The Green Meadow,” Jackson’s only contribution must have been the dream whose imagery probably laid the foundations for the opening segments.
Once again Alfred Galpin reviewed the story favourably: “. . . I recall the attention of amateurs to the most important story recently published, ‘The Crawling Chaos,’ pseudonymously written by Winifred Virginia Jackson and H. P. Lovecraft. The narrative power, vivid imagination and poetic merit of this story are such as to elevate it above certain minor but aggravating faults of organisation and composition.” But not everyone was so enthusiastic. Lovecraft, in the “News Notes” for the January 1922 United Amateur, takes a certain glee in reporting the hostile reaction of one amateur: “. . . during a denunciation of Lovecraftian stories [he] remarked, ‘We can hardly go them. That Crawling Chaos is the limit. His attempts at Poe-esque tales will hand him—’” I do not know who this person is; Lovecraft merely identifies him, archly, as a “prominent politician with a distaste for the ‘wild, weird tales’ of H. P. Lovecraft.”
Another tale written late in 1920—“The Picture in the House,” written on December 12—is a very different proposition, and can rank as one of Lovecraft’s pioneering stories of his early period. Its opening is very celebrated:
Searchers after horror haunt strange, far places. For them are the catacombs of Ptolemais, and the carven mausolea of the nightmare countries. They climb to the moonlit towers of ruined Rhine castles, and falter down black co
Resounding as this is, it is generally overlooked that the narrator of the tale is no “epicure in the terrible” but merely an individual “in quest of certain genealogical data” who, travelling on bicycle, finds himself forced to take shelter at a decrepit farmhouse in the “Miskatonic Valley.” When his knocks fail to summon an occupant, he believes it to be uninhabited and enters; but shortly the occupant, who had been asleep upstairs, makes an appearance.
In the doorway stood a person of such singular appearance that I should have exclaimed aloud but for the restraints of good breeding. Old, white-bearded, and ragged, my host possessed a countenance and physique which inspired equal wonder and respect. His height could not have been less than six feet, and despite a general air of age and poverty he was stout and powerful in proportion. His face, almost hidden by a long beard which grew high on the cheeks, seemed abnormally ruddy and less wrinkled than one might expect; while over a high forehead fell a shock of white hair little thinned by the years. His eyes, though a trifle bloodshot, seemed inexplicably keen and burning. But for his horrible unkemptness the man would have been as distinguished as he was impressive.
The old man, seemingly a harmless backwoods farmer speaking in “an extreme form of Yankee dialect I had thought long extinct” (“‘Ketched in the rain, be ye?’”), notes that his visitor had been examining a very old book on a bookcase, Pigafetta’s Regnum Congo, “printed in Frankfort in 1598.” This book continually turns, as if from frequent consultation, to plate XII, depicting “in gruesome detail a butcher’s shop of the cannibal Anziques.” The old man avers that he obtained the book from a sailor from Salem years ago, and as he continues babbling on in his increasingly loathsome patois he begins to make vile confessions of the effects of that plate: “‘Killin’ sheep was kinder more fun—but d’ye know, ’twan’t quite satisfyin’. Queer haow a cravin’ gits a holt on ye— As ye love the Almighty, young man, don’t tell nobody, but I swar ter Gawd thet picter begun ta make me hungry fer victuals I couldn’t raise nor buy—’” At that point a drop of liquid falls from the ceiling directly upon the plate. The narrator thinks it is rain, but “rain is not red.” “I did not shriek or move, but merely shut my eyes.” But a thunderbolt destroys the house and its tenant, although somehow the narrator survives.
There are so many points of interest in this compact, 3000-word story that it is difficult to know where to begin. This tale is celebrated for its introduction of the second, and perhaps most famous, city in Lovecraft’s mythical New England—Arkham. Here it is clearly implied that the city is in the Miskatonic Valley, since the narrator “found myself upon an apparently abandoned road which I had chosen as the shortest cut to Arkham.” It is not entirely clear where the mythical Miskatonic Valley itself is, but there is no compelling reason to assume (as Will Murray did in a provocative series of articles whose conclusions were substantially refuted by Robert D. Marten) that Arkham was not at this time a fictional analogue of the coastal town Salem, as Lovecraft frequently declared in later years. Murray’s conjecture that the name Arkham was founded on the central Massachusetts town of Oakham also seems implausible—no less implausible than Marten’s conjecture that the source of the name was an archaic Rhode Island town, Arkwright. Until further evidence emerges, we shall have to remain in the dark as to the precise origin of the name Arkham.
More significant is the fact that “The Picture in the House” is the first of Lovecraft’s tales not merely to utilise an authentic New England setting but to draw upon what Lovecraft himself clearly felt to be the weird heritage of New England history, specifically the history of Massachusetts. As a Rhode Islander (but one who spent his very early years in Massachusetts and would probably have become a resident of the state had his father not taken ill), Lovecraft could look upon the “Puritan theocracy” of Massachusetts with suitably abstract horror and even a certain condescension; in the story he somewhat flamboyantly paints the lurking hideousness of the repressed colonial tradition:
In such houses have dwelt generations of strange people, whose like the world has never seen. Seized with a gloomy and fanatical belief which exiled them from their kind, their ancestors sought the wilderness for freedom. There the scions of a conquering race indeed flourished free from the restrictions of their fellows, but cowered in an appalling slavery to the dismal phantasms of their own minds. Divorced from the enlightenment of civilisation, the strength of these Puritans turned into singular channels; and in their isolation, morbid self-repression, and struggle for life with relentless Nature, there came to them dark furtive traits from the prehistoric depths of their cold Northern heritage. By necessity practical and by philosophy stern, these folk were not beautiful in their sins. Erring as all mortals must, they were forced by their rigid code to seek concealment above all else; so that they came to use less and less taste in what they concealed.
These sentiments, expressed perhaps less hyperbolically, would remain with Lovecraft throughout his life. It becomes clear from this passage that the principal cause, in the atheist Lovecraft’s mind, of the Puritans’ ills was their religion. In discussing “The Picture in the House” with Robert E. Howard in 1930, he remarks: “Bunch together a group of people deliberately chosen for strong religious feelings, and you have a practical guarantee of dark morbidities expressed in crime, perversion, and insanity.” In a much earlier discussion of Puritans with Frank Belknap Long, in 1923, Lovecraft says (again a trifle hyperbolically and pretentiously): “Verily, the Puritans were the only really effective diabolists and decadents the world has known; because they hated life and scorned the platitude that it is worth living.”
Regardless of the validity of Lovecraft’s interpretation of early New England, this gesture of imbuing horror in seventeenth-century Puritan Massachusetts was of vital significance to his entire aesthetic of horror. Maurice Lévy remarks correctly that the American fantastic tradition up to Lovecraft’s time “lacks unity and depth”; he goes on to contrast European and American weird writing:
To create an adequate atmosphere for a fantastic tale, we must have old houses and medieval castles that materialize in space the hallucinatory presence of the past, the houses we can find authentically only on the old continent. We need an old, legendary foundation, a national heritage of obscure beliefs and antiquated superstitions. We need millennia of history, the progressive accumulation in the racial memory of prodigious facts and innumerable crimes, so that the necessary sublimations and schematizations can take place. Above all, we need a history that has become myth, so that the fantastic tale can be born through the irruption of myth into history.
Lévy maintains that Lovecraft created a sort of ersatz historical tradition by drawing upon the colonial past—the only “ancient” historical period (aside from the Indians) that this country can acknowledge. We may not have millennia of history, but even two or three hundred years—in a land that was changing rapidly even in Lovecraft’s day, to say nothing of our own—is sufficient for those “sublimations and schematizations” to take place. Lovecraft did not know it yet, but he had found the locus of horror on his doorstep. At the moment, he was regarding the colonial past as a “pure other”—something of which he, the eighteenth-century Rhode Island rationalist, had no part; it was only after his New York period that he would come to internalise it, recognise it as his own, and treat the land, its people, and its history with both sympathy and horror.
Returning specifically to “The Picture in the House,” it is not me
The Regnum Congo by Filippo Pigafetta (1533–1604) is of some interest in revealing an embarrassing lapse on Lovecraft’s part. The book was, to be sure, printed in Frankfort in 1598; but its first edition was not in Latin, as that edition was, but in Italian (Relatione del reame di Congo et della cironvicine contrade, Rome, 1591); it was subsequently translated into English (1597) and German (1597) prior to its Latin translation; and it was in the German (as well as the Latin) translation that the plates by the brothers De Bry were introduced. Lovecraft appears not to have known any of this because he derived his information on the book entirely from Thomas Henry Huxley’s essay “On the History of the Man-like Apes,” in Man’s Place in Nature and Other Anthropological Essays (1894). Lovecraft must have read this book prior to 1915, for it was from another essay in it—“On the Methods and Results of Ethnology”—that he derived the term “Xanthochroi” mentioned in “The Crime of the Century” (Conservative, April 1915). What is more, Lovecraft never consulted the De Bry plates themselves but only some rather inaccurate engravings of them printed in an appendix to Huxley’s essay. As a result, Lovecraft makes errors in describing the plates; for example, the old man thinks the natives drawn in them are anomalously white-looking, when in fact this is merely the result of a poor rendering of the plates by Huxley’s illustrator. All this is only of interest because it reveals Lovecraft on occasion to have used exactly that “second-hand erudition” for which he later chided Poe.