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I am providence the life.., p.59

I Am Providence: The Life and Times of H. P. Lovecraft (2 VOLUMES), page 59


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

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  Finally, what are we to make of the deus ex machina conclusion? Lovecraft has been roundly abused for it, but the convenient stroke of lightning seems clearly derived from Poe’s “The Fall of the House of Usher,” where a bolt of lightning causes the “once barely-discernible fissure” in the house to crack open so that the entire house collapses. This may or may not be much of an excuse, but Lovecraft at least has an impressive precedent for what is really a relatively insignificant aspect of a tale that otherwise offers tremendous richness of theme and conception.

  The use of the backwoods New England dialect by the old man calls for some comment. The fact that the narrator believes it to have been “long extinct” is another clue that the old man must be hundreds of years old. But where, in fact, did Lovecraft derive this peculiar dialect, which he will use at considerable length in some later stories, notably “The Dunwich Horror” (1928) and “The Shadow over Innsmouth” (1931)? Lovecraft admits in 1929 that the dialect did not exist in the New England of his day:

  As for Yankee farmers—oddly enough, I haven’t noticed that the majority talk any differently from myself; so that I’ve never regarded them as a separate class to whom one must use a special dialect. If I were to say, “Mornin’, Zeke, haow ye be?” to anybody along the road during my numerous summer walks, I fancy I’d receive an icy stare in return—or perhaps a puzzled inquiry as to what theatrical troupe I had wandered out of![32]

  We will, however, see that in the summer of 1928 he found some reason to modify this judgment. But if this dialect was not (or was no longer) in existence, where did Lovecraft come by it? Jason C. Eckhardt has, with much plausibility, suggested a literary source: James Russell Lowell’s Biglow Papers (1848–62).[33] Lovecraft owned Lowell’s poems and was clearly familiar with much of his work; he notes reading the Biglow Papers as early as August 1916.[34] In the introduction to the first series of Biglow Papers Lowell specifically addresses the issue of the “Yankee dialect” found in the poems, claiming that many of the dialectical variants derive from the usage of the earliest colonists. He presents a dialectical rendition of a celebrated passage:

  Neow is the winta uv eour discontent

  Med glorious summa by this sun o’ Yock,

  An’ all the cleouds thet leowered upon eour heouse

  In the deep buzzum o’ the oshin buried . . .

  These are not exactly the same dialectical variants found in Lovecraft, but they are close enough to make one suspect that he has chosen to make his own variations from them. Eckhardt goes on to note astutely that Lovecraft’s awareness that this dialect was already regarded by Lowell as archaic further augments the sense of the preternatural age of the old man in “The Picture in the House.”

  “The Picture in the House” appeared, with “Idealism and Materialism—a Reflection,” in the “July 1919” National Amateur, which I have already noted was actually issued only in the summer of 1921. It remains one of Lovecraft’s most reprinted stories. Later reprints derive from a revised version in which Lovecraft made some interesting changes. In particular, he subtilised his description of the old man. At the conclusion of his initial portrayal Lovecraft had added, in the National Amateur text: “On a beard which might have been patriarchal were unsightly stains, some of them disgustingly suggestive of blood.” This would have been a catastrophic telegraphing of the final “punch,” and Lovecraft wisely omitted it for subsequent appearances.

  It may be worth covering some of the other stories that presumably date to 1920 before turning to those written in the early part of 1921. One of the most interesting items—interesting precisely because we do not have it—is “Life and Death.” This is supposedly one of Lovecraft’s few “lost” stories, and it has haunted generations of Lovecraftians by its very absence. The pieces of the puzzle are widely scattered, and we must begin with entry 27 in the commonplace book:

  Life & Death

  Death—its desolation & horror—bleak spaces—sea-bottom—dead cities. But Life—the greater horror! Vast unheard-of reptiles & leviathans—hideous beasts of prehistoric jungle—rank slimy vegetation—evil instincts of primal man—Life is more horrible than death.

  This entry is in a group of entries dated to 1919; but, as I have already indicated, the dates Lovecraft affixed to his commonplace book years after jotting the entries down are highly unreliable, and I have my doubts whether any part of the commonplace book dates to even late 1919.

  The query we must face is whether the story was written at all; there are, of course, dozens of entries in the commonplace book that were not used, although few are of such detail and length. Aside from the very next entry (for “The Cats of Ulthar”), this is the only one that has a title affixed to it; but the entry for “The Cats of Ulthar” has been indicated as “used,” whereas there is no such indication for “Life and Death.” Was this story, then, actually written and published in an amateur journal?

  The first piece of evidence that suggests that it was comes from the first Lovecraft bibliography, compiled by Francis T. Laney and William H. Evans and published in 1943. In the listing of stories there is the citation: “LIFE AND DEATH. (c. 1920) (D) Unpublished?” (D indicates a disavowed story.) The bibliography was compiled with the assistance of many of Lovecraft’s later associates, in particular R. H. Barlow, who may have been told of “Life and Death” in person by Lovecraft (it is not mentioned in the correspondence to Barlow). Barlow wrote to August Derleth in 1944: “As for the sort [of] pieces you ask about, I can be of no help . . . THE STREET I saw once, I think and LIFE AND DEATH.”[35]

  The most important piece of evidence, however, comes from George T. Wetzel, whose bibliography of 1955 was a landmark of Lovecraft scholarship. In an essay, “The Research of a Biblio” (1955), in which he told of his bibliographic work, Wetzel wrote:

  While in Philadelphia [in 1946] I showed some of my initial compilation to Oswald Train . . . The Lovecraft story “Life and Death” was found by me at this time, but the amateur paper and date were on one page of my biblio which vanished while I was visiting at Train’s home. I attempted to re-locate this item on a later trip, but I feel I’ve not back-tracked enough. Suffice it to say that it exists in those files and may one day be uncovered by some one more blessed with funds for research expenses than myself.[36]

  Wetzel’s sanguine prediction has proved vain. His initial research on amateur appearances of Lovecraft was done at the Fossil Collection of Amateur Journalism, at that time in the Franklin Institute in Philadelphia. Later it was transferred to the Fales Library of New York University, where I consulted it in 1978; but by then the collection had been vandalised by someone who had cut out many Lovecraft appearances with a razor blade. I have looked through nearly every major repository of amateur journals in this country but have failed to turn up this item.

  It is, I suppose, futile to speculate on the content of “Life and Death,” but my feeling is that there really is no such work, and that researchers have confused it with an actual prose-poem that may date to this time, “Ex Oblivione.” This work was published in the United Amateur for March 1921 under the “Ward Phillips” pseudonym, one of the few instances in which a story appeared under a pseudonym. This unusually bitter and cheerless fantasy (“When the last days were upon me, and the ugly trifles of existence began to drive me to madness like the small drops of water that torturers let fall ceaselessly upon one spot of their victim’s body, I loved the irradiate refuge of sleep”) tells of a man who seeks various exotic worlds in dream as an antidote to the grinding prosiness of daily life; later, when “the days of waking became less and less bearable from their greyness and sameness,” he begins to take drugs to augment his nightly visions. In the “dream-city of Zakarion” he comes upon a papyrus containing the thoughts of the dream-sages who once dwelt there, he reads of a “high wall pierced by a little bronze gate” which may or may not be the entrance to untold wonders. Realising that “no new horror can be more terrible than the daily torture of the commonp
lace,” the narrator takes more and more drugs in an effort to find this gate. Finally he seems to come upon it—the door is ajar.

  But as the gate swung wider and the sorcery of drug and dream pushed me through, I knew that all sights and glories were at an end; for in that new realm was neither land nor sea, but only the white void of unpeopled and illimitable space. So, happier than I had ever dared hoped to be, I dissolved again into that native infinity of crystal oblivion from which the daemon Life had called me for one brief and desolate hour.

  As can be seen, this is a precise instantiation of the “Life is more horrible than death” trope that “Life and Death” is supposed to have embodied. It is true that the prose-poem does not include much of the imagery found in the corresponding commonplace book entry (there is nothing about “vast unheard-of reptiles & leviathans” and so forth), but we have seen that many elements of an entry that inspired a tale do not actually make it into the finished story. “Ex Oblivione” also constitutes a parable on that poignant utterance in In Defence of Dagon (spoken there, however, with an awareness of the bountiful pleasures of life): “There is nothing better than oblivion, since in oblivion there is no wish unfulfilled.” In its union of a powerful philosophical message with rhythmic, musical, yet relatively restrained diction it may be intrinsically the best of Lovecraft’s four surviving prose-poems, although “Nyarlathotep” is perhaps a more central work in Lovecraft’s oeuvre.

  Then there is the oddity called “Sweet Ermengarde; or, The Heart of a Country Girl” (by “Percy Simple”). This is the only work of fiction by Lovecraft which we cannot date at all precisely. The manuscript of the story is written on stationery from the Edwin E. Phillips Refrigeration Company, which was a going concern around 1910 or so, but since the story alludes to the passage of the 18th Amendment it must clearly date to 1919 or later. Since Phillips (Lovecraft’s uncle) died on November 14, 1918, perhaps the stationery came into Lovecraft’s possession shortly thereafter; but it is by no means certain that Lovecraft wrote the story at that time. From the handwriting the tale could date to as late as 1922 or 1923. The pseudonym may be a clue: Lovecraft’s one surviving letter to Myrta Alice Little (May 17, 1921) includes a brief parody of a Sunday-school story entitled “George’s Sacrifice: By Percy Vacuum, age 8.” “Sweet Ermengarde,” too, is very clearly a parody, this time on the Horatio Alger stories (which Lovecraft, conceivably, may have read in dime-novel form at the turn of the century). The tale makes me think of a curious P.S. to Lovecraft’s letter in the Argosy for March 1914: “I have a design of writing a novel for the entertainment of those readers who complain that they cannot secure enough of Fred Jackson’s work. It is to be entitled: ‘The Primal Passion, or The Heart of ’Rastus Washington.’” It is, in fact, possible that Jackson is a subsidiary (or even primary) target for attack here. Jackson’s “The First Law” has exactly the sort of implausibility of plot and sentimentality of action that is so hilariously lampooned in “Sweet Ermengarde.” This story is, in short, a little masterpiece of comic deflation. In basic plot and even in tone and texture it oddly anticipates Nathanael West’s A Cool Million (1936).

  Ermengarde Stubbs is the “beauteous blonde daughter” of Hiram Stubbs, a “poor but honest farmer-bootlegger of Hogton, Vt.” She admits to being sixteen years old, and “branded as mendacious all reports to the effect that she was thirty.” She is pursued by two lovers who wish to marry her: ’Squire Hardman, who is “very rich and elderly” and, moreover, has a mortgage on Ermengarde’s home; and Jack Manly, a childhood friend who is too bashful to declare his love, but who unfortunately has no money. Jack, however, manages to find the gumption to propose, and Ermengarde accepts with alacrity. Hardman observes this and in fury demands Ermengarde’s hand from her father lest he foreclose on the mortgage (he has, incidentally, found that the Stubbses’ land has gold buried in it). Jack, learning of the matter, vows to go to the city and make his fortune and save the farm.

  Hardman, however, takes no chances and has two disreputable accomplices kidnap Ermengarde and hole her up in a hovel under the charge of Mother Maria, “a hideous old hag.” But as Hardman ponders the matter, he wonders why he is even bothering with the girl, when all he really wants is the farm and its buried gold. He lets Ermengarde go and continues to threaten to foreclose. Meanwhile a band of hunters strays on to the Stubbses’ property and one of them, Algernon Reginald Jones, finds the gold; not revealing it to his companions or to the Stubbses, Algernon feigns snakebite and goes to the farm, where he instantly falls in love with Ermengarde and wins her over with his sophisticated city ways. She elopes with Algernon a week later, but on the train to the city a piece of paper falls out of Algernon’s pocket; picking it up, she finds to her horror that it is a love letter from another woman. She pushes Algernon out the window.

  Unfortunately, Ermengarde fails to take Algernon’s wallet, so she has no money when she reaches the city. She spends a week on park benches and in bread-lines; she tries to look up Jack Manly, but can’t find him. One day she finds a purse; finding that it has not much money in it, she decides to return it to its owner, a Mrs Van Itty. This aristocrat, amazed at the honesty of the “forlorn waif,” takes Ermengarde under her wing. Later Mrs Van Itty hires a new chauffeur, and Ermengarde is startled to find that it is Algernon! “He had survived—this much was almost immediately evident.” It turns out that he had married the woman who wrote the love letter, but that she had deserted him and run off with the milkman. Humbled, Algernon asks Ermengarde’s forgiveness.

  Ermengarde, now ensconced as a replacement for the daughter Mrs Van Itty lost many years ago, returns to the old farmstead and is about to buy off the mortgage from Hardman when Jack suddenly returns, bringing a wife, “the fair Bridget Goldstein,” in tow. All this time Mrs Van Itty, sitting in the car, eyes Ermengarde’s mother Hannah and finally shrieks: “You—you—Hannah Smith—I know you now! Twenty-eight years ago you were my baby Maude’s nurse and stole her from the cradle!!” Then she realises that Ermengarde is in fact her long-lost daughter. But Ermengarde is now doing some pondering: “How could she get away with the sixteen-year-old stuff if she had been stolen twenty-eight years ago?” She, knowing of the gold on the Stubbses’ farm, repudiates Mrs Van Itty and compels ’Squire Hardman’s to foreclose on the mortgage and marry her lest she prosecute him for last year’s kidnapping. “And the poor dub did.”

  The mere narration of this spectacularly convoluted and ridiculous plot (all told in 3000 words) clearly reveals the absurdity of the dime-novel sentimental romance being parodied here. Some of Lovecraft’s humour is a bit sophomoric (“She was about 5 ft 5.33… in tall, weighed 115.47 lbs. on her father’s copy scales—also off them—and was adjudged most lovely by all the village swains who admired her father’s farm and liked his liquid crops”), but on the other hand much of it is rather good. The portrayal of the stereotyped ’Squire Hardman is delightful—at one point he indulges “in his favourite pastime of gnashing his teeth and swishing his riding-crop.” When Jack proposes to Ermengarde, she cries, “Jack—my angel—at last—I mean, this is so unexpected and quite unprecedented!” The conclusion of this tender love-scene can only be quoted:

  “Ermengarde, me love!”

  “Jack—my precious!”

  “My darling!”

  “My own!”

  “My Gawd!”

  When Jack vows to the Stubbses that “You shall have the old home still,” the narrator is forced to add in brackets: “[adverb, not noun—although Jack was by no means out of sympathy with Stubbs’ kind of farm produce].”

  It is a shame that Lovecraft never made an effort to prepare this outrageous little squib for publication, but perhaps he considered it a jeu d’esprit whose purpose had been served by the mere writing of it. With “A Reminiscence of Dr. Samuel Johnson” and “Ibid,” “Sweet Ermengarde” forms a trilogy of Lovecraft’s comic gems.

  “The Nameless City” appears to be the first story of 1921, written in mid- to late
January; in a letter to Frank Belknap Long of January 26, 1921, he reports it as “just finished and typed.”[37] This tale, for which Lovecraft always retained an inexplicable fondness, is really one of the worst of his purely weird efforts—a fact Lovecraft should have suspected from its repeated rejections in professional markets over the years. After its predictable appearance in the amateur press (Wolverine, November 1921) it was finally published in the semi-professional fanzine Fanciful Tales for Fall 1936, a few months before Lovecraft’s death. Like many of his early works, it is more important for what it suggests and foretells than for what it actually contains.

  A somewhat overexcited archaeologist seeks to explore the nameless city, which lies “remote in the desert of Araby.” It was of this place that Abdul Alhazred “the mad poet” dreamed the night before he wrote his “unexplainable couplet”:

  That is not dead which can eternal lie,

  And in strange aeons even death may die.

  The narrator burrows into the sand-choked apertures that lead into some of the larger structures of the city. He is disturbed by the odd proportions of a temple into which he crawls, for the ceiling is very low to the ground and the man can scarcely kneel upright in it. He descends an immense staircase that leads down into the bowels of the earth, where he finds a large but still very low-built hall with odd cases lining the walls and frescoes covering the walls and ceiling. The creatures in the cases are very peculiar:

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