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I am providence the life.., p.60

I Am Providence: The Life and Times of H. P. Lovecraft (2 VOLUMES), page 60


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

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  They were of the reptile kind, with body lines suggesting sometimes the crocodile, sometimes the seal, but more often nothing of which either the naturalist or the palaeontologist ever heard. In size they approximated a small man, and their fore legs bore delicate and evidently flexible feet curiously like human hands and fingers. But strangest of all were their heads, which presented a contour violating all known biological principles. To nothing can such things be well compared—in one flash I thought of comparisons as varied as the cat, the bulldog, the mythic Satyr, and the human being.

  In spite of the fact that it is these anomalous entities who are portrayed in the frescoes, the narrator manages to convince himself that they are mere totem-animals for the human builders of the nameless city and that the historical tableaux depicted in the frescoes are metaphors for the actual (human) history of the place. But this comforting illusion is shattered when the narrator perceives a gust of cold wind emerging from the end of the hallway, where a great bronze gate lies open and from which a strange phosphorescence is emerging, and then sees in the luminous abyss the entities themselves rushing in a stream before him. Somehow he manages to escape and tell his story.

  The absurdities and implausibilities in this tale, along with its wildly overheated prose, give it a very low place in the Lovecraft canon. Where, for example, did the creatures who built the nameless city come from? There are no indications that they came from another planet; but if they are simply early denizens of the earth, how did they come to possess their physical shape? Their curiously composite nature seems to rule out any evolutionary pattern known to earth’s creatures. How do they continue to exist in the depths of the earth? The narrator must also be very foolish not to realise at once that the entities were the ones who built the city. Lovecraft does not seem to have thought out the details of this story at all carefully.

  Lovecraft admitted that it was largely inspired by a dream, which in turn was triggered by a suggestive phrase in Dunsany’s Book of Wonder, “the unreverberate blackness of the abyss” (the last line of “The Probable Adventure of the Three Literary Men”). Lovecraft goes on to say that he began the story twice but was dissatisfied, and only “hit the right atmosphere the third time.”[38] A slightly more concrete source, perhaps, is the entry on “Arabia” in the 9th edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica, which Lovecraft owned. He copied down part of this entry in his commonplace book (entry 47), especially the part about “Irem, the City of Pillars . . . supposed to have been erected by Shedad, the latest despot of Ad, in the regions of Hudramut, and which yet, after the annihilation of its tenants, remains entire, so Arabs say, invisible to ordinary eyes, but occasionally, and at rare intervals, revealed to some heaven-favoured traveller.” Lovecraft mentions Irem casually in his tale, suggesting that the nameless city was even older than this antediluvian place. The Irem connexion presumably accounts for the citation of the “unexplainable couplet” (“That is not dead which can eternal lie, / And with strange aeons even death may die”) attributed to Abdul Alhazred, who here makes his first appearance in Lovecraft. A later entry in the commonplace book (59) is clearly an account of the dream that inspired the story: “Man in strange subterranean chamber—seeks to force door of bronze—overwhelmed by influx of waters.”

  The remarkable thing about “The Nameless City” is that Lovecraft took its basic scenario—a scientist investigating a millennia-abandoned city and deciphering historical bas-reliefs on the walls—and made it not only plausible but immensely powerful in a tale written exactly ten years later, At the Mountains of Madness. In that short novel we even find the same sort of desperate rationalising as the protagonists seek to convince themselves that the entities (extraterrestrials this time) depicted on the bas-reliefs are not the actual builders of the city but are somehow meant as symbols for human beings; but this feature too is handled more cogently and with greater psychological acuity.

  “The Moon-Bog,” as we have seen, was written to order for a St Patrick’s Day gathering of amateurs in Boston, and it betrays its thinness of inspiration by being a very conventional supernatural revenge story. Denys Barry, who comes from America to reclaim an ancestral estate in Kilderry, Ireland, decides to empty the bog on his hand: “For all his love of Ireland, America had not left him untouched, and he hated the beautiful wasted space where peat might be cut and land opened up.” The peasants refuse to help him in this work for fear of disturbing the spirits of the bog; but Barry calls in outside workers and the project continues apace, even though the workers confess suffering from strange and troublesome dreams. One night the narrator, Barry’s friend, awakes and hears a piping in the distance: “wild, weird airs that made me think of some dance of fauns on distant Maenalus” (a curious nod to “The Tree”). Then he sees the labourers dancing as if under some form of hypnosis, along with “strange airy beings in white, half indeterminate in nature, but suggesting pale wistful naiads from the haunted fountains of the bog.” But the next morning the workers seem to remember nothing of the night’s events. The next night things reach a climax: the piping is heard again, and the narrator again sees the “white-clad bog-wraiths” drifting toward the deeper waters of the bog, followed by the mesmerised labourers. Then a shaft of moonlight appears, and “upward along that pallid path my fevered fancy pictured a thin shadow slowly writhing; a vague contorted shadow struggling as if drawn by unseen daemons.” It is Denys Barry, who is spirited off and never seen again.

  The elementary nature of the moral in “The Moon-Bog”—the spirits of Nature avenging or warding off desecration by human beings—renders the story unusually trite and commonplace, even though some of the language is evocative and relatively subdued. Strangely enough, twelve years after Lovecraft wrote this story, Lord Dunsany would write a novel based very largely on the same conception—The Curse of the Wise Woman (1933)—but with infinitely greater richness of texture and complexity of theme. It need hardly be said that Dunsany could not possibly have been influenced by Lovecraft’s harmless little story, whose only appearance prior to his death was in Weird Tales for June 1926.

  The last story I wish to consider here is “The Outsider.” This tale has been seen as prototypical of Lovecraft’s work, and in some ways even emblematic of his entire life and thought; but I think there are reasons to doubt such assertions. As one of Lovecraft’s most reprinted stories, its plot is very well known. A strange individual who has spent his entire life virtually alone except for some aged person who seems to take care of him decides to forsake the ancient castle in which he finds himself and seek the light by climbing the tallest tower of the edifice. With great effort he manages to ascend the tower and experiences “the purest ecstasy I have ever known: for shining tranquilly through an ornate grating of iron . . . was the radiant full moon, which I had never before seen save in dreams and in vague visions I dared not call memories.”

  But horror follows this spectacle, for he now observes that he is not at some lofty height but has merely reached “the solid ground.” Stunned by this revelation, he walks dazedly through a wooded park where a “venerable ivied castle” stands. This castle is “maddeningly familiar, yet full of perplexing strangeness to me”; but he detects the sights and sounds of joyous revelry within. He steps through a window of the castle to join the merry band, but at that instant “there occurred one of the most terrifying demonstrations I had ever conceived”: the partygoers flee madly from some hideous sight, and the protagonist appears to be alone with the monster who has seemingly driven the crowd away in frenzy. He thinks he sees this creature “beyond the golden-arched doorway leading to another and somewhat similar room,” and finally does catch a clear glimpse of it:

  I cannot even hint what it was like, for it was a compound of all that is unclean, uncanny, unwelcome, abnormal, and detestable. It was the ghoulish shade of decay, antiquity, and desolation; the putrid, dripping eidolon of unwholesome revelation; the awful baring of that which the merciful earth should always hide. God knows it
was not of this world—or no longer of this world—yet to my horror I saw in its eaten-away and bone-revealing outlines a leering, abhorrent travesty on the human shape; and in its mouldy, disintegrating apparel an unspeakable quality that chilled me even more.

  He seeks to escape the monster, but inadvertently falls forward instead of retreating; and at that instant he touches “the rotting outstretched paw of the monster beneath the golden arch.” It is only then that he realises that that arch contains “a cold and unyielding surface of polished glass.”

  On the level of plot, “The Outsider” makes little sense. What exactly is the nature of the “castle” in which the Outsider dwells? If it is truly underground, how is it that the creature spends time in the “endless forest” surrounding it? Taking these and other implausibilities—if the story is to be held to rigid standards of realism—into account, and noting the epigraph from Keats’s Eve of St Agnes (“That night the Baron dreamt of many a woe; / And all his warrior-guests . . . / Were long be-nightmared”), William Fulwiler has suggested that “The Outsider” is merely the account of a dream.[39] There is something to be said for this, and this explanation would certainly account for the seemingly “irrational” elements in the tale; but the story does offer some further complexities of plot. From the various remarks by the Outsider regarding his puzzlement at the present shape of the ivied castle he enters (as well as a path “where only occasional ruins bespoke the ancient presence of a forgotten road”), it becomes evident that the Outsider is some long-dead ancestor of the current occupants of the castle. His emergence in the topmost tower of his underground castle places him in a room containing “vast shelves of marble, bearing odious oblong boxes of disturbing size”: clearly the mausoleum of the castle on the surface. Of course, even if the Outsider is some centuried ancestor, there is no explanation for how he has managed to survive—or rise from the dead—after all this time.

  The conclusion of the story—in which the Outsider touches the mirror and realises that the monster is himself—can scarcely be a surprise to any reader, even though Lovecraft deftly puts off the actual stating of the revelation and allows the Outsider to tell of his actions following it: he suffers a merciful lapse of memory, finds himself unable to return to his underground castle, and now “ride[s] with the mocking and friendly ghouls on the night-wind, and play[s] by day amongst the catacombs of Nephren-Ka in the sealed and unknown valley of Hadoth by the Nile.” But that climactic image of touching the glass has correctly been seen to be representative of a significant number of Lovecraft’s fictional works. Donald R. Burleson writes:

  The rotting finger that touches the glass sets ringing a vibration that will endure, will continue to resonate in varying pitches and intensities, throughout the whole experience of Lovecraft’s fiction. . . . The grand theme of the soul-shattering consequences of self-knowledge is the one defining notion into which Lovecraft’s other themes feed in confluence, rivers running to a common sea.[40]

  Many commentators have attempted to speculate on a literary influence for this image. Colin Wilson[41] has suggested both Poe’s classic story of a double, “William Wilson,” and also Wilde’s fairy tale “The Birthday of the Infanta,” in which a twelve-year-old princess is initially described as “the most graceful of all and the most tastefully attired” but proves to be “a monster, the most grotesque monster he had ever beheld. Not properly shaped as all other people were, but hunchbacked, and crooked-limbed, with huge lolling head and a mane of black hair.”[42] George T. Wetzel[43] has put forth Hawthorne’s curious sketch, “Fragments from the Journal of a Solitary Man,” in which a man has the following revelation in a dream: “‘I passed not one step farther, but threw my eyes on a looking-glass which stood deep within the nearest shop. At first glimpse of my own figure I awoke, with a horrible sensation of self-terror and self-loathing. No wonder that the affrighted city fled! I had been promenading Broadway in my shroud!’” Then, of course, there is a celebrated passage in Frankenstein:

  “I had admired the perfect forms of my cottagers—their grace, beauty, and delicate complexions; but how was I terrified when I viewed myself in a transparent pool! At first I started back, unable to believe that it was indeed I who was reflected in the mirror; and when I became fully convinced that I was in reality the monster that I am, I was filled with the bitterest sensations of despondence and moritification.”[44]

  This influence seems more likely in view of the fact that the earlier scene, where the Outsider disturbs the party by stepping through the window, may also have been derived from Frankenstein: “‘One of the best of [the cottages] I entered, but I had hardly placed my foot within the door before the children shrieked, and one of the women fainted.’”[45] A less distinguished predecessor is a story in the All-Story Weekly for September 2, 1916, “The Man in the Mirror” by Lillian B. Hunt, in which again the protagonist only learns of his own hideousness by looking in a mirror.

  Preeminently, however, the story is a homage to Poe. August Derleth frequently bestowed upon “The Outsider” the dubious honour of claiming that it would pass as a lost tale of Poe’s if presented as such; but Lovecraft’s own later judgment, expressed in a 1931 letter to J. Vernon Shea, seems more accurate:

  Others . . . agree with you in liking “The Outsider”, but I can’t say that I share this opinion. To my mind this tale—written a decade ago—is too glibly mechanical in its climactic effect, & almost comic in the bombastic pomposity of its language. As I re-read it, I can hardly understand how I could have let myself be tangled up in such baroque & windy rhetoric as recently as ten years ago. It represents my literal though unconscious imitation of Poe at its very height.[46]

  Lovecraft perhaps spoke better than he knew, for the opening of the tale is a startlingly close pastiche of the first four paragraphs of Poe’s “Berenice”; and yet, Lovecraft probably is correct in speaking of the Poe influence as unconscious at this stage.

  In 1934 Lovecraft provided an interesting sidelight into the composition of the story. As recollected by R. H. Barlow, Lovecraft stated: “‘The Outsider’ [is] a series of climaxes—originally intended to cease with the graveyard episode; then he wondered what would happen if people would see the ghoul; and so included the second climax; finally he decided to have the Thing see itself!”[47] There are those who think Lovecraft had too many “climaxes” here; among them is W. Paul Cook:

  When I first saw The Outsider it was in the typed manuscript, and at the bottom of a page were the words: “My fingers touched the rotting outstretched paw of the monster beneath the golden arch.” There was the revelation; there was the story; and I thought that was the end of the story. I was struck with admiration at the artistic restraint of the work, and started a note of praise to Lovecraft when, lifting the sheet, I found there was more of it. Restraint disappeared and the author enjoyed himself throwing words around. All the rest was just verbiage, words, padding, anti-climax. I wrote him then that the story should have ended there. And I still think so.[48]

  This somewhat jaundiced account perhaps has some merit as a criticism of the lack of a genuine “surprise” ending in the story; but, Cook’s comments notwithstanding, if the story really had ended where Cook wished it to, there would have remained unacceptable ambiguity as to the actual revelation. Cook, however, frequently expressed dissatisfaction with Lovecraft’s later stories, much preferring his early, nebulous, purely supernatural short narratives.

  “The Outsider” will always remain a popular favourite, and indeed it is not entirely undeserving of its celebrity: its rhetoric, if a little overdone, is effective in its flamboyant, Asianic way; the climax, while predictable, is structurally clever in being placed at the very last line of the tale; and the figure of the Outsider is distinctive (although here again the influence of Frankenstein may perhaps be evident) in that it inspires both horror and pathos. The tale was not published in an amateur journal: it was scheduled to appear in the first (and, as it proved, only) issue of Cook’s
Recluse,[49] but Lovecraft persuaded Cook to release it and allow it to be published in Weird Tales for April 1926, where it created a sensation.

  It is, however, now time to examine the question of the story’s autobiographical character. The opening sentence reads: “Unhappy is he to whom the memories of childhood bring only fear and sadness.” One of the Outsider’s final remarks—“I know always that I am an outsider; a stranger in this century and among those who are still men”—has been taken as prototypical of Lovecraft’s entire life, the life of an “eccentric recluse” who wished himself intellectually, aesthetically, and spiritually in the rational haven of the eighteenth century. I think we have already learnt enough about Lovecraft to know that such an interpretation greatly overstates the case: without denying his emphatic and sincere fondness, and even to some degree nostalgia, for the eighteenth century, he was also very much a part of his time, and was an “outsider” only in the sense that most writers and intellectuals find a gulf between themselves and the commonality of citizens. Lovecraft’s childhood was by no means unhappy, and he frequently looked back upon it as idyllic, carefree, and full of pleasurable intellectual stimulation and the close friendship of at least a small band of peers.

  Is, then, “The Outsider” a symbol for Lovecraft’s own self-image, particularly the image of one who always thought himself ugly and whose mother told at least one individual about her son’s “hideous” face? I find this interpretation rather superficial, and it would have the effect of rendering the story maudlin and self-pitying. The plausibility of this view would perhaps be augmented if the exact date of writing of “The Outsider” could be ascertained—especially if it could be established that it was written on or around the time of Susie’s death on May 24, 1921. But Lovecraft never discusses the story in any letters of 1921–22 that I have seen, never supplies an exact date of writing for the tale on the relatively few later instances where he talks about it, and in his various lists of stories it usually appears sandwiched between “The Moon-Bog” (March) and “The Other Gods” (August 14). I think it is more profitable not to read too much autobiographical significance in “The Outsider”: its large number of apparent literary influences seem to make it more an experiment in pastiche than some deeply felt expression of psychological wounds.

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