I am providence the life.., p.64

I Am Providence: The Life and Times of H. P. Lovecraft (2 VOLUMES), page 64


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

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  But Lovecraft could scarcely scorn David Van Bush: he was a regular customer, and he paid promptly and well. In 1917 Lovecraft was charging a rate of $1.00 for sixty lines of verse;[48] by 1920 Bush had agreed to pay $1.00 for forty-eight lines;[49] and by September 1922 Bush was paying $1.00 for every eight lines of verse revised.[50] This really is a pretty remarkable rate, given that the best Lovecraft could do with his own professionally published poetry was to get 25¢ per line for verse in Weird Tales. Lovecraft goes on to note: “I told him that only at this high price could I guarantee my own personal service—he doesn’t like Morton’s work so well, and asked me to do as much as possible myself.” What this clearly means is that Lovecraft and Morton have teamed up to do revisory work. How formal was such an arrangement? It is difficult to tell, but consider the following ad that appeared in the amateur journal L’Alouette (edited by Charles A. A. Parker) in September 1924:

  THE CRAFTON SERVICE BUREAU offers the expert assistance of a group of highly trained and experienced specialists in the revision and typing of manuscripts of all kinds, prose or verse, at reasonable rates.

  THE BUREAU is also equipped with unusual facilities for all forms of research, having international affiliations of great importance. Its agents are in a position to prepare special articles on any topic at reasonable notice. It has a corps of able translators, and can offer the best of service in this department, covering all of the important classical and modern languages, including the international language Esperanto. It is also ready to prepare and supervise courses of home study or reading in any field, and to furnish expert confidential advice with reference to personal problems.

  APPLICATIONS and INQUIRIES may be addressed to either of the heads of THE BUREAU:

  Howard P. Lovecraft,


  James F. Morton, Jr.,


  Well, Lovecraft (or Morton) has certainly caught the spirit of advertising! I have no idea how much business this wildly exaggerated ad—suggesting that Lovecraft and Morton were “heads” of a non-existent bureau of editors, revisors, translators, and solvers of “personal problems”—brought in; Bush seemed to remain Lovecraft’s chief revision client until well into the 1920s. It is likely that many of the “services” noted above were provided by Morton: it was he who was a former vice president of the Esperanto Association of North America, he who probably knew the modern languages better than Lovecraft, he who may have had better “international affiliations” than Lovecraft (unless this refers merely to amateur colleagues in Great Britain and the British Commonwealth). Even those “personal problems” were probably under Morton’s jurisdiction, since among his published works was at least one collaborative treatise on sex morality. It is, in any case, difficult to imagine Lovecraft at this stage dealing with anyone’s personal problems but his own.

  There were other, possibly flippant or wistfully considered job prospects. At the beginning of 1920 Lovecraft became involved in correcting arithmetic papers for the Hughesdale Grammar School. Hughesdale is a village in the township of Johnston, now at the western edge of the Providence metropolitan area, and the school board had urgent need of a substitute mathematics teacher; as a result of family connexions, the job was offered to one of Lovecraft’s aunts (probably Lillian), and Lovecraft himself was brought in to assist in the task. He did not actually go to the school, but merely corrected papers as they were brought back by his aunt.[51]

  This job was of very short duration; but perhaps as a result of the experience, in early 1920 Lovecraft mused about the following:

  I have been wondering lately if I could ever manage, under the pressure of poverty, to accept a position in an evening school. A day school, of course, would be out of the question—for I can rarely keep up that long for two successive days. If fairly frequent absences could be pardoned, I might manage to keep up with the evening hours—but fancy my trying to hold in check a roomful of incipient gangsters! It seems as though every avenue of remunerative activity is closed to a total nervous wreck![52]

  This is one of the most pathetic passages in Lovecraft’s early letters. How he could have imagined that any night school would hire a high-school dropout who might be subject to “fairly frequent absences” is beyond fathoming. One wonders whether the remark about “incipient gangsters” is a recollection of the Providence Amateur Press Club, made up of seemingly quite normal, if lower-class, night-school students from North Providence.

  In the midst of all this activity, both amateur and professional, Lovecraft finally embarked upon a career of professional fiction publication; inevitably, the opportunity was afforded him by amateur connexions. Around September 1921 George Julian Houtain (who had married the amateur writer E. Dorothy MacLaughlin) conceived the idea of launching a peppy and slightly off-colour humour magazine named Home Brew. As contributors he called upon his various amateur colleagues and managed to secure pieces from James F. Morton, Rheinhart Kleiner, and others for early issues. For some strange reason he wished Lovecraft to write a serial horror story, even though such a thing would seemingly clash with the general humorous tone of the magazine. He offered Lovecraft the princely sum of $5.00 per 2000-word instalment (¼¢ a word). “You can’t make them too morbid,” Lovecraft reports Houtain telling him.[53] The first issue of the magazine duly appeared in February 1922, selling for 25¢ and with a subtitle—“A Thirst Quencher for Lovers of Personal Liberty”—that was clearly a code for a certain element of sexual daring in both literary content and artwork. It was edited by “Missus and Mister George Julian Houtain.” A blurb on the cover—“Do Dead Come to Life?”—refers to Lovecraft’s serial, which he titled “Herbert West—Reanimator” but which Houtain ran under the title “Grewsome Tales” (“grewsome” was a legitimate variant of “gruesome” at this time). A later issue proclaims on the cover that the author of “Grewsome Tales” is “Better Than Edgar Allen [sic] Poe”!

  Lovecraft takes a certain masochistic pleasure in complaining at being reduced to the level of a Grub Street hack. Over and over for the next several months he emits whines like the following:

  In this enforced, laboured, and artificial sort of composition there is nothing of art or natural gracefulness; for of necessity there must be a superfluity of strainings and repetitions in order to make each history compleat. My sole inducement is the monetary reward, which is a guinea per tale . . .[54]

  Now this is manifestly inartistic. To write to order, to drag one figure through a series of artificial episodes, involves the violation of all that spontaneity and singleness of impression which should characterise short story work. It reduces the unhappy author from art to the commonplace level of mechanical and unimaginative hack-work. Nevertheless, when one needs the money one is not scrupulous—so I have accepted the job![55]

  One gets the impression that Lovecraft actually got a kick out of this literary slumming.

  In spite of the fact that the six episodes of “Herbert West—Reanimator” were clearly written over a long period—the first two were finished by early October;[56] the fourth was written in early March;[57] the sixth was finished no later than mid-June, and perhaps earlier[58]—the tale does maintain unity of a sort, and Lovecraft seems to have conceived it as a single entity from the beginning: in the final episode all the imperfectly resurrected corpses raised by Herbert West come back to despatch him hideously. In other ways the story builds up a certain cumulative power and suspense, and it is by no means Lovecraft’s poorest fictional work. The structural weaknesses necessitated by the serial format are obvious and unavoidable: the need to recapitulate the plot of the foregoing episodes at the beginning of each new one, and the need for a horrific climax at the end of each episode. But, in fact, one wonders whether the plot summaries were in fact necessary: why did Lovecraft not have Houtain supply synopses as headnotes to each successive story? There are in fact headnotes to each segment, but they are wholly fatuous puffs o
r teasers written by Houtain to spur reader interest. Lovecraft appears to have learnt better in his second Home Brew serial, “The Lurking Fear,” where he must have instructed Houtain to provide just such synopses to free him from the burden of doing so.

  “Herbert West—Reanimator” is narrated in the first person by an unnamed friend and colleague of Dr Herbert West; both he and West attended the Miskatonic University Medical School in Arkham and later went on to experience various adventures as practising physicians. It was in medical school that West derived his peculiar theories about the possibility of reanimating the dead:

  His views . . . hinged on the essentially mechanistic nature of life; and concerned means for operating the organic machinery of mankind by calculated chemical action after the failure of natural processes. . . . Holding with Haeckel that all life is a chemical and physical process, and that the so-called “soul” is a myth, my friend believed that artificial reanimation of the dead can depend only on the condition of the tissues; and that unless actual decomposition has set in, a corpse fully equipped with organs may with suitable measures be set going again in the peculiar fashion known as life.

  It is unlikely that even the most astute readers of Home Brew expected a mention of Ernst Haeckel in a story of this kind. The amusing thing, of course, is that the above actually expresses Lovecraft’s own philosophical view, as noted in In Defence of Dagon and elsewhere; what is still more amusing is that the narrator later admits that he still “held vague instinctive remnants of the primitive faith of my forefathers.” Clearly Lovecraft is having a little fun both at his own philosophy and at the naive beliefs of the average citizen as to the existence of the soul.

  The six episodes show West producing more and more hideous instances of reanimation. In the first, West injects a serum in a corpse, but it seems to produce no results; the two doctors bury the corpse in the potter’s field, only to learn later that it came to life after all. In the second, West impishly decides to resurrect Dr Allan Halsey, who as head of the medical school had vigorously opposed West’s experiments and had died in the typhoid epidemic that raged through Arkham. The creature is caught and locked up in Sefton Asylum. In the third, West and the narrator have set up practice in the small Massachusetts town of Bolton, and attempt to resurrect the body of a black man—an amateur boxer named Buck Robinson, “The Harlem Smoke”—but seem to find that the serum “prepared from experience with white specimens only” will not work on black corpses; later they learn otherwise. In the fourth episode the narrator, returning from a vacation with his parents in Illinois, finds West in a state of unusual excitement. He has designed an embalming fluid that will preserve a corpse in a state of freshness indefinitely, and claims that a travelling salesman who had come to visit West had died unexpectedly and would therefore serve as a perfect specimen because of the freshness of the corpse. When it is reanimated, the narrator finds that West’s account of the matter is perhaps not wholly accurate. The fifth episode takes us to the horrors of the Great War, where West and the narrator have enlisted in a Canadian regiment in 1915. West now seeks to put into practice still more eccentric views on the reanimation of the dead, and does so in a loathsome manner. The sixth episode finds the two doctors in Boston after the war, and it ends with the various reanimated bodies returning to tear West to pieces and bear off the fragments of his corpse through ancient underground tunnels leading to a cemetery.

  No one would deem “Herbert West—Reanimator” a masterpiece of subtlety, but it is rather engaging in its lurid way. It is also my belief that the story, while not starting out as a parody, became one as time went on. In other words, Lovecraft initially attempted to write a more or less serious, if quite “grewsome,” supernatural tale but, as he perceived the increasing absurdity of the enterprise, abandoned the attempt and turned the story into what it in fact was all along, a self-parody. The philosophical subtext of the story may bear out this interpretation. We have already seen that Lovecraft initially endows West with his own mechanistic views, so that the reanimation of the dead becomes merely an extrapolation upon them. But consider West’s later theories during his World War I experience:

  Two biological points he was exceedingly anxious to settle—first, whether any amount of consciousness and rational action be possible without the brain, proceeding from the spinal cord and various nerve-centres; and second, whether any kind of ethereal, intangible relation distinct from the material cells may exist to link the surgically separated parts of what has previously been a single living organism.

  That second point is so manifestly a contradiction of materialism that it can only be intended parodically—or, rather, as an excuse for a particularly grisly tableau in which a severed head placed in a vat cries out when West reanimates the trunk. If this were not enough to indicate parody at this stage of the story, consider this passage in the same segment (the fifth): “The scene I cannot describe—I should faint if I tried it, for there is madness in a room full of classified charnel things, with blood and lesser human debris almost ankle-deep on the slimy floor, and with hideous reptilian abnormalities sprouting, bubbling, and baking over a winking bluish-green spectre of dim flame in a far corner of black shadows.” I have to believe this is intended more to provoke a smirk than a shudder.

  The question of influence might be worth studying briefly. It has been taken for granted that the obvious influence upon the story is Frankenstein; but I wonder whether this is the case. The method of West’s reanimation of the dead (whole bodies that have died only recently) is very different from that of Victor Frankenstein (the assembling of a huge composite body from disparate parts of bodies), and only the most general influence can perhaps be detected. The core of the story is so elementary a weird conception that no literary source need be postulated.

  “Herbert West—Reanimator” does have some importance in Lovecraft’s evolving imaginary New England topography. It is the first story where Miskatonic University is mentioned, although of course the word Miskatonic had already appeared in “The Picture in the House.” Five of the six segments are set in New England, even if there is not much in the way of realistic landscape description in any of them. The mention of Bolton is interesting: it is a real town in east-central Massachusetts; but it was not at the time a “factory town” as Lovecraft describes it, but merely a tiny agricultural community. Lovecraft has a few topographical in-jokes along the way as well. In the first segment the two doctors find the “deserted Chapman farmhouse beyond Meadow Hill” a suitable place for their experiments; later it burns to the ground when their first experiment goes awry. Recall this passage from a letter to Rheinhart Kleiner of February 1920:

  But the event of the season was the burning of the large Chapman house last Wednesday night—the yellow house across two lawns to the north of #598 Angell. . . . There, in full view, was the most impressive sight I ever beheld. Where that evening had stood the unoccupied Chapman house, recently sold and undergoing repairs, was now a titanic pillar of roaring, living flame amidst the deserted night—reaching into the illimitable heavens and lighting the country for miles around.[59]

  No one but Lovecraft—and perhaps Kleiner—would ever have gotten this joke.

  I do not know whether much need be made of the apparent racism in the third episode. Buck Robinson is described as “a loathsome, gorilla-like thing, with abnormally long arms which I could not help calling fore legs, and a face that conjured up thoughts of unspeakable Congo secrets and tom-tom poundings under an eerie moon.” The latter part of the sentence is so extravagant that I again suspect parody. And, interestingly, far from confirming the doctors’ belief that the serum prepared for white patients would not work on a black corpse, the resurrection of Buck Robinson actually establishes the reverse.

  It has frequently been believed—based upon Lovecraft’s remark in June 1922 that “the pay was a myth after the second cheque”[60]—that Lovecraft was never fully paid for the serial; but a letter to Samuel Loveman in Novemb
er 1922 reports that Houtain has “paid up his past debts” and even advanced Lovecraft $10 for the first two segments of “The Lurking Fear.”[61]

  Lovecraft managed to write two other stories while working desultorily on “Herbert West—Reanimator,” and they are very different propositions altogether. “The Music of Erich Zann” appears to have been written in late 1921, probably December, since in Lovecraft’s chronologies of his fiction it is always listed as the last story of the year; a letter of early February 1922 states: “‘Erich Zann’ I wrote only recently.”[62] The first of its many appearances was in the National Amateur for March 1922.

  “The Music of Erich Zann” justifiably remained one of Lovecraft’s own favourite stories, for it reveals a restraint in its supernatural manifestations (bordering, for one of the few times in his entire work, on obscurity), a pathos in its depiction of its protagonist, and a general polish in its language that Lovecraft rarely achieved in later years.

  The first-person narrator, again nameless, has “examined maps of the city with the greatest of care,” but he cannot find the Rue d’Auseil, where he once dwelt as an “impoverished student of metaphysics” and heard the music of Erich Zann. Zann is a mute viol-player who played in a cheap theatre orchestra and dwelt in the garret apartment of a boarding-house run by “the paralytic Blandot”; the narrator, occupying a room on the fifth floor, occasionally hears Zann playing wild tunes featuring harmonies that seem to have no relation to any known style of music. One night he meets Zann in the hallway and asks to listen in while he plays; Zann accedes, but plays only ordinary music, although it is nevertheless affecting and apparently of his own composition. When the narrator asks Zann to play some of his weirder numbers, and even begins to whistle one of them, Zann reacts with horror and covers the narrator’s mouth with his hand. When the narrator then seeks to look out the curtained window of the apartment, Zann furiously tugs at his coat and prevents him from doing so. Later Zann has the narrator move to a lower floor so that he does not hear the music anymore.

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