I am providence the life.., p.6
I Am Providence: The Life and Times of H. P. Lovecraft (2 VOLUMES), page 6
The next year, at the age of five, Lovecraft discovered a seminal book in his aesthetic development: the Arabian Nights. There is some confusion as to which exact edition Lovecraft read. The copy found in his library—The Arabian Nights Entertainments, selected and edited by Andrew Lang (London: Longmans, Green, 1898)—was given to him by his mother; it bears the inscription in her handwriting: “Howard Phillips Lovecraft / From your Mother Christmas 1898.” Now clearly Lovecraft could not have read this edition—which Lang says he translated (and, very likely, bowdlerised) from the French translation of Galland—at the age of five. There were many competing editions of the Arabian Nights available at this time, not the least of which was, of course, Sir Richard Burton’s landmark translation in sixteen volumes in 1885–86. Lovecraft certainly did not read this translation, either, as it is entirely unexpurgated and reveals, as few previous translations did, just how bawdy the Arabian Nights actually are. (Interestingly, in light of Lovecraft’s later racial views, several tales speak with outrage about sexual encounters between black men and Islamic women.) My guess is that Lovecraft read one of the following three translations:
The Arabian Nights’ Entertainments: Six Stories. Edited by Samuel Eliot; translated by Jonathan Scott. Authorized for use in the Boston Public Schools. Boston: Lee & Shepard; New York: C. T. Dillington, 1880.
The Thousand and One Nights; or, The Arabian Nights’ Entertainments. Chicago & New York: Bedford, Clarke & Co., 1885.
The Arabian Nights. Edited by Everett H. Hale; [translated by Edward William Lane]. Boston: Ginn & Co., 1888.
The Lane translation in particular went through many editions.
This matter is not of especial importance; what is significant is the book’s effect upon Lovecraft:
. . . how many dream-Arabs have the Arabian Nights bred! I ought to know, since at the age of 5 I was one of them! I had not then encountered Graeco-Roman myth, but found in Lang’s Arabian Nights a gateway to glittering vistas of wonder and freedom. It was then that I invented for myself the name of Abdul Alhazred, and made my mother take me to all the Oriental curio shops and fit me up an Arabian corner in my room.
There are at least two false statements here. First, I have already noted that it could not be Lang’s edition of the Arabian Nights that Lovecraft read at this time. (Susie’s presenting him the book for Christmas in 1898 was clearly a response to the fondness he had already exhibited for the work.) Second is the matter of the coining of the name Abdul Alhazred. In his most important formal autobiographical essay, “Some Notes on a Nonentity” (1933), written nearly two years after the letter just quoted (where he claims to have invented the name himself), he states that Abdul Alhazred was a name “some kindly elder had suggested to me as a typical Saracen name.” Another letter clarifies the matter: “I can’t quite recall where I did get Abdul Alhazred. There is a dim recollection which associates it with a certain elder—the family lawyer, as it happens, but I can’t remember whether I asked him to make up an Arabic name for me, or whether I merely asked him to criticise a choice I had otherwise made.” The family lawyer was Albert A. Baker, who would be Lovecraft’s legal guardian until 1911. His coinage (if indeed it was his) was a singularly infelicitous one from the point of view of Arabic grammar, since the result is a reduplicated article (Abdul Al hazred). A more likely coinage would have been Abd el-Hazred, although this doesn’t much have of a ring to it. In any event, the name stuck, as every reader of Lovecraft knows.
The Arabian Nights may not have definitively steered Lovecraft toward the realm of weird fiction, but it certainly did not impede his progress in that direction. It is frequently not noticed that a relatively small proportion of tales from the Arabian Nights are actually supernatural; even the celebrated story of Sindbad is largely a series of adventures on the high seas. There are, of course, tales of crypts, tombs, caves, deserted cities, and other elements that would form significant features in Lovecraft’s imaginative landscape; but we are still in the realm of legend, where the supernatural is presented less as an appalling defiance of natural law than as a wonder to be accepted with relatively little fanfare.
What might have finally stacked the deck in favour of the weird for Lovecraft was his unexpected discovery of an edition of Coleridge’s Rime of the Ancient Mariner illustrated by Gustave Doré, which he stumbled upon at the house of a friend of his family’s at the age of six. The edition he saw is likely to have been the first American edition of the poem containing Doré’s illustrations, The Rime of the Ancient Mariner (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1876), which went through many printings. Here is the impression the poem, and the pictures, made upon a young Lovecraft:
. . . imagine a tall, stately Victorian library in a house sometimes visited with my mother or aunts. Marble mantel—thick bearskin rug—endless shelves of books. . . . A house of adults, so that a 6-year-old caller’s interest strays most naturally to the shelves & great centre table & mantel. Fancy then the discovery of a great atlas-sized gift-book leaning against the mantel & having on the cover gilt letters reading “With Illustrations by Gustave Doré”. The title didn’t matter—for didn’t I know the dark, supernal magic of the Doré pictures in our Dante & Milton at home? I open the book—& behold a hellish picture of a corpse-ship with ragged sails under a waning moon! I turn a page . . . . . God! A spectral, half-transparent ship on whose deck a corpse & a skeleton play at dice! By this time I am flat on the bearskin rug & ready to thumb through the whole book . . . of which I’ve never heard before. . . . . A sea full of rotting serpents, & death-fires dancing in the black air . . . . . troops of angels & daemons . . . . . crazed, dying, distorted forms . . . . . dead men rising in their putrescence & lifelessly manning the dank rigging of a fate-doomed barque . . . .
Who could resist such a spell? If Lovecraft read this book at the age of six, it must have occurred between August 1896 and August 1897. He may have done so at the home of Whipple’s cousin Theodore W. Phillips, who lived nearby at 256 (later numbered 612) Angell Street; but Lovecraft clearly identifies the location as a “friend’s” house (by which he probably means a friend of his family), and it would seem odd to describe his great-uncle as such. In any event, if the Ancient Mariner was the principal literary influence in the early development of Lovecraft’s taste for the weird, a searing personal event may have been as significant.
Lovecraft’s paternal grandfather died in 1895, but Lovecraft gives no indication that this event affected him or his family in any way; indeed, he states that he never saw his paternal grandfather in person—an indication, perhaps, of the degree to which the Lovecraft side of the family had become (or perhaps always remained) strangers to the Phillips side, especially after the illness and hospitalisation of Winfield Scott Lovecraft. But an event that occurred on January 26, 1896, did seriously affect the five-and-a-half-year-old boy: the death of his maternal grandmother, Robie Alzada Place Phillips.
It was, perhaps, not so much the loss of a family member—to whom Lovecraft does not appear to have been especially close—as its effect upon the remaining members of the family that so affected the young boy: “. . . the death of my grandmother plunged the household into a gloom from which it never fully recovered. The black attire of my mother & aunts terrified & repelled me to such an extent that I would surreptitiously pin bits of bright cloth or paper to their skirts for sheer relief. They had to make a careful survey of their attire before receiving callers or going out!” Seriocomically as Lovecraft narrates these events, twenty years after the fact, it is evident that they left a profound impression upon him. The aftermath was quite literally nightmarish:
And then it was that my former high spirits received their damper. I began to have nightmares of the most hideous description, peopled with things which I called “night-gaunts”—a compound word of my own coinage. I used to draw them after waking (perhaps the idea of these figures came from an edition de luxe of Paradise Lost with illustrations by Doré, which I discovered on
And so begins Lovecraft’s career as one of the great dreamers—or, to coin a term that must be coined for the phenomenon, nightmarers—of literary history. Even though it would be another ten years from the writing of this letter, and hence a full thirty years after these dreams, that he would utilise the night-gaunts in his work, it is already evident that his boyhood dreams contain many conceptual and imagistic kernels of his mature tales: the cosmic backdrop; the utterly outré nature of his malignant entities (in a late letter he describes them as “black, lean, rubbery things with bared, barbed tails, bat-wings, and no faces at all ”), so different from conventional demons, vampires, or ghosts; and the helpless passivity of the protagonist-victim, at the mercy of forces infinitely more powerful than himself. It would, of course, take a long time for Lovecraft to evolve his theory and practice of weird fiction; but with dreams like these at such an early age—and in the last year of his life he confessed that, of his subsequent nightmares, “even the worst is pallid beside the real 1896 product”—his career as a writer of horror tales comes to seem like an inevitable destiny.
Lovecraft’s family—in particular his mother—must, however, have been concerned for his physical and psychological health at the onset of his dreams, and at what may have been a general pattern of gloomy or depressed behaviour. Lovecraft speaks frequently in later years of a trip to western Rhode Island taken in 1896, but does not speak of its purpose or effect. It is difficult to deny that this trip to ancestral lands was, at least in part, an attempt by his family to rid him of his nightmares and his general malaise. Then, again, perhaps the entire family—bereaved husband Whipple, Robie’s daughters Lillie, Susie, and Annie—were in need of solace. (The trip would not have been made for the purpose of burying Robie in Foster, for she was laid to rest in the Phillips plot at Swan Point Cemetery.)
Lovecraft reports visiting the homestead of James Wheaton Phillips (1830–1901), Whipple’s older brother, on Johnson Road in Foster, spending two weeks there. It is not entirely clear who accompanied him, but his mother must surely have come along, and perhaps both aunts as well. The ancient house, nestled against a hill and near a meadow with a winding brook flowing through it, must surely have encouraged both Lovecraft’s yearning for the rural landscape and his burgeoning antiquarianism; but a still more remarkable event stimulated Lovecraft and effected perhaps his first concrete defeat of his personal enemy, Time:
In 1896, when I was six years old, I was taken to visit in the Western Rhode Island region whence my maternal stock came; and there met an ancient gentlewoman—a Mrs. Wood, daughter to a rebel officer in the late unfortunate uprising against His Majesty’s lawful authority—who was celebrating with proper pride her hundredth birthday. Mrs. Wood was born in the year 1796, and could walk and talk when Genl. Washington breath’d his last. And now, in 1896, I was conversing with her—with one who had talked to people in periwigs and three-cornered hats, and had studied from schoolbooks with the long s! Young as I was, the idea gave me a tremendous feeling of cosmic victory over Time . . .
Such personal contact with an individual who was living in Lovecraft’s beloved eighteenth century would not have had the obvious impact that it did if Lovecraft had not already become fascinated with the eighteenth century through the books in that “black, windowless attic room” at 454 Angell Street. And yet, it is not entirely clear at what precise age Lovecraft began to haunt that room; one must believe that it was perhaps around the age of five or six. In 1931 he maintained that “I think I am probably the only living person to whom the ancient 18th century idiom is actually a prose and poetic mother-tongue,” and he explained how this came about:
At home all the main bookcases in library, parlours, dining-room, and elsewhere were full of standard Victorian junk, most of the brown-leather old-timers . . . having been banished to a windowless third-story trunk-room which had sets of shelves. But what did I do? What, pray, but go with candles and kerosene lamp to that obscure and nighted aërial crypt—leaving the sunny downstairs 19th century flat, and boring my way back through the decades into the late 17th, 18th and early 19th century by means of innumerable crumbling and long-s’d tomes of every size and nature—Spectator, Tatler, Guardian, Idler, Rambler, Dryden, Pope, Thomson, Young, Tickell, Cooke’s Hesiod, Ovid by Various Hands, Francis’s Horace and Phaedrus, &c. &c. &c. . . .
It’s a wonder Lovecraft didn’t burn the house down with that candle and kerosene lamp. Lovecraft added, “thank God I have ’em yet as the main items of my own modest collection”; true enough, his collection of books of or about the eighteenth century (some, of course, obtained in later years) is impressive. It is evident from the above list, and from the books in his library, that what especially attracted him in eighteenth-century literature was poetry and prose nonfiction; he remarked frequently that the early novelists appealed to him much less, noting at one point that the aspect of the eighteenth century represented by Fielding was “a side that Mr. Addison, Dr. Johnson, Mr. Cowper, Mr. Thomson, and all my best friends both hated and lamented.” No doubt the sexual frankness of Fielding, the buffoonery of Smollett, and the utter subversion of eighteenth-century rationalism represented by Sterne did not please either the young or the older Lovecraft at all.
This eighteenth-century predilection, especially in poetry, led indirectly to a literary and philosophical interest of still greater importance: classical antiquity. At the age of six Lovecraft read Hawthorne’s Wonder-Book (1852) and Tanglewood Tales (1853), and professed himself “enraptured by the Hellenic myths even in their Teutonised form” (“A Confession of Unfaith”). Lovecraft is here merely echoing Hawthorne’s preface to A Wonder-Book: “In the present version [the myths] may have lost much of their aspect . . ., and have, perhaps assumed a Gothic or romantic guise.” These tales are narrated in a conversational manner, each myth being told by a college student, Eustace Bright, to a group of children. A Wonder-Book contains the myths of Perseus and Medusa, King Midas, Pandora, the Golden Apples of the Hesperides, Baucis and Philemon, and the Chimaera. Tanglewood Tales recounts the stories of the Minotaur, the Pygmies, the Dragon’s Teeth, Circe’s Palace, the Pomegranate Seeds, and the Golden Fleece. While most of the tales are originally Greek, it is likely that Hawthorne relied much on Ovid’s Metamorphoses for descriptive details; he used it exclusively for the Baucis and Philemon story, which is found only there.
From Hawthorne Lovecraft naturally graduated to Thomas Bulfinch’s The Age of Fable (1855), the first of three simplified rewritings of myths by Bulfinch; this, along with the other two—The Age of Chivalry (1858) and Legends of Charlemagne (1863)—constitute Bulfinch’s Mythology. I see no evidence that Lovecraft ever read these latter two volumes, as he never expressed any interest whatever in the Middle Ages. The copy of The Age of Fable found in his library appears to date to 1898, so he must have read an earlier edition and obtained (or was given) this copy later.
There is no reason to wonder at Lovecraft’s becoming captivated by Graeco-Roman myth upon reading Bulfinch; for his artless simplicity retains freshness and charm even after the lapse of more than a century and a half. His simple piety is wholly ingenuous: “The creation of the world is a problem naturally fitted to excite the liveliest interest of man, its inhabitant. The ancient pagans, not having the information on the subject which we derive from the pages of Scripture, had their own way of telling the story . . .” Lovecraft no doubt shrugged this off with insouciance. Much of Bulfinch is similarly derived from Ovid’s Metamorphoses;
Lovecraft finally came upon the Metamorphoses itself around this time, doing so in a way that felicitously united his burgeoning love of classical myth with his already existing fondness for eighteenth-century prosody. His grandfather’s library had an edition of “Garth’s Ovid”—that gorgeous 1717 translation of the Metamorphoses assembled by Sir Samuel Garth, taking some portions from previously published translations (Dryden had translated the entirety of books one and twelve and portions of others; Congreve had translated a portion of book ten) and commissioning poets both eminent (Pope, Addison, Gay, Nicholas Rowe) and obscure (Laurence Eusden, Arthur Maynwaring, Samuel Croxall, James Vernon, John Ozell) to fill in the remaining sections. Garth himself, a poet of no small distinction—Lovecraft owned a 1706 edition of his medical poem The Dispensary (1699)—translated book fourteen and a portion of book fifteen. The result is a riot of exquisite iambic pentameter couplets—thousands and thousands of lines in unending succession. It is not surprising that “The even decasyllabic rhythm seemed to strike some responsive chord in my brain, and I forthwith became wedded to that measure . . .” The actual edition read by Lovecraft appears to be a two-volume edition simply titled Ovid (Harper & Brothers, 1837), of which volume 2 (the only one found in his library) contains the Metamorphoses and the Epistles (i.e., the Heroides).
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