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I am providence the life.., p.65

I Am Providence: The Life and Times of H. P. Lovecraft (2 VOLUMES), page 65


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

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  One night, as the narrator comes to Zann’s door, he hears “the shrieking viol swell into a chaotic babel of sound” and later hears an “awful, inarticulate cry which only the mute can utter, and which rises only in moments of the most terrible fear or anguish.” Demanding entry, he is let in by a harried Zann, who manages to calm himself and writes a scribbled note saying that he will prepare “a full account in German of all the marvels and terrors which beset him.” An hour passes while Zann writes; then a strange sound seems to come from the curtained window: “. . . it was not a horrible sound, but rather an exquisitely low and infinitely distant musical note . . .” Zann immediately stops writing, picks up his viol, and commences to play with daemoniac fury: “He was trying to make a noise; to ward something off or drown something out . . .” The glass of the window breaks, blowing out the candle and plunging the room into darkness; a sudden gust of wind catches up the manuscript and bears it out the window. As the narrator attempts to save it, he gains his first and last look out that lofty window: “Yet when I looked from that highest of all gable windows, looked while the candles sputtered and the insane viol howled with the night-wind, I saw no city outspread below, and no friendly lights gleaming from remembered streets, but only the blackness of space illimitable; unimagined space alive with motion and music, and having no semblance to anything on earth.” The narrator runs into Zann in an effort to flee, encountering the mad player still playing mechanically even though he seems to be dead. Rushing out of the building, he finds the outside world seemingly normal: “And I recall that there was no wind, and that the moon was out, and that all the lights of the city twinkled.” And he has, from that time, been unable to find the Rue d’Auseil.

  Lovecraft in later years was aware that “The Music of Erich Zann” had a sort of negative value: it lacked the flaws—notably overexplicitness and overwriting—that marred some of his other works, both before and after. He somewhat mechanically declared that it was his second-favourite of his own stories, next to “The Colour out of Space,” but he admitted late in life that this was “because it isn’t as bad as most of the rest. I like it for what it hasn’t more than for what it has.”[63] The reference, of course, is to the very nebulous nature of the horror involved. What, exactly, is Zann trying to “ward off”? Why does the narrator see empty space “alive with motion and music,” and what is this supposed to signify? There are those who find this sort of restraint effective because it leaves so much to the imagination; and there are those who find it ineffective because it leaves too much to the imagination, and there is a suspicion that the author himself did not have a fully conceived understanding of what the central weird phenomenon of the story is actually meant to be. I fear I am in the latter camp. Lovecraft was, I think, regrettably correct in later years in believing that pulp fiction had insidiously and unwittingly corrupted his style by making his stories a little too histrionic and overexplanatory; but in “The Music of Erich Zann” I cannot help feeling that he has erred in the opposite direction.

  Robert M. Price, in a provocative close reading of the story, finds tantalising hints that Zann is a kind of otherworldly figure who by the end of the tale has spiritually returned to the black abysses where he always belonged. Why, argues Price, would Zann’s German be “execrable” even though he is presumably a native German? Why is Zann twice described as “satyr-like,” and why does the narrator seem to see “shadowy satyrs and Bacchanals dancing and whirling insanely” at the end? Price’s subtle analysis deserves much consideration, although it must inevitably leave some elements of the story unexplained.[64]

  It should be pointed out that the instrument Zann is playing is a viol—the archaic stringed instrument played between the legs and shaped like a cello—not a violin. This may seem a little grotesque—even more so as Zann is supposed to be playing this instrument in a “cheap theatre orchestra”; but Lovecraft confirms the matter when in a letter he refers to Zann as a “’cellist.”[65]

  The setting of the story is worth considering. Is it, in fact, Paris? It has always been assumed to be so, but Lovecraft never states so explicitly, and the Rue d’Auseil is the only place name mentioned in the story. One curious piece of evidence—if it can be called that—comes from the French critic Jacques Bergier, who claimed to have corresponded with Lovecraft late in the latter’s life and specifically asked Lovecraft how and when he had ever seen Paris in order to derive the convincing atmosphere of the tale, to which Lovecraft is said to have replied, “In a dream, with Poe.”[66] But there is, quite frankly, reason to doubt whether Bergier corresponded with Lovecraft at all, and the entire story may be apocryphal. In any case, Lovecraft declares shortly after writing the story, “It is not, as a whole, a dream, though I have dreamt of steep streets like the Rue d’Auseil.”[67] The word Auseil does not exist in French (nor does Zann exist in German), but it has plausibly been suggested that the place name is meant to convey au seuil (“at the threshold”)—i.e., that Zann’s room (and his music) is at the threshold between the real and the unreal. Lovecraft had only a smattering of French, but he could have come up with an elementary coinage of this sort.

  The other story of this period is “Hypnos,” probably written in March 1922.[68] It is a curious but quite substantial tale that has not received the attention it deserves, perhaps because Lovecraft himself in later years came to dislike it. A recently discovered typescript of the tale bears the dedication “To S. L.,” although it is not clear that Samuel Loveman was in any way instrumental in its conception or writing. Probably the dedication refers to the references to Greek antiquity, which Loveman included in much of his own verse. A relatively early entry in the commonplace book (23) provides the plot-germ for the story: “The man who would not sleep—dares not sleep—takes drugs to keep himself awake. Finally falls asleep—& something happens—”

  “Hypnos” tells the tale of a sculptor who encounters another man at a railway station. This person had fallen unconscious, and the narrator, struck with the man’s appearance (“the face [was] . . . oval and actually beautiful . . . I said to myself, with all the ardour of a sculptor, that this man was a faun’s statue out of antique Hellas”), takes it upon himself to rescue the man, who becomes the sculptor’s only friend. The two engage in “studies” of some nameless sort, studies “of that vaster and more appalling universe of dim entity and consciousness which lies deeper than matter, time, and space, and whose existence we suspect only in certain forms of sleep—those rare dreams beyond dreams which never come to common men, and but once or twice in the lifetime of imaginative men.” The sensations experienced by the two in these “dreams” are almost inexpressible, but the narrator’s teacher is always “vastly in advance” in the exploration of these realms of quasi-entity. But at some point the teacher encounters some awesome horror that causes him to shriek into wakefulness. Previously they had augmented their dream-visions with drugs; now they take drugs in a desperate effort to keep awake. They reverse their previous reclusiveness (they had dwelt in an “old manor-house in hoary Kent”) and seek as many “assemblies of the young and the gay” as they can. But it all goes for naught: one night the teacher cannot stay awake for all the efforts of his sculptor friend; something nameless happens, and all that is left of the teacher is an exquisitely sculpted bust of “a godlike head of such marble as only old Hellas could yield”, with the word HYPNOS in Greek letters at the base. People maintain that the narrator never had a friend, but that “art, philosophy, and insanity had filled all my tragic life.”

  It would seem as if the interpretation of this story would rest on whether the narrator’s friend actually existed or not; but this point may not affect the analysis appreciably. What we have here, ultimately, is, as with “The Other Gods,” a case of hubris, but on a much subtler level. At one point the narrator states: “I will hint—only hint—that he had designs which involved the rulership of the visible universe and more; designs whereby the earth and the stars would move at his command,
and the destinies of all living things be his.” This sounds somewhat extravagant, but in the context of the story it is powerful and effective, even though (and perhaps this is a point in its favour) not much evidence is offered as to how the person could have effected this rulership of the universe. If the person really existed, then he is merely endowed with overweening pride and his doom—at the hands of the Greek god of sleep, Hypnos—is entirely merited. On a psychological interpretation, this “friend” becomes merely an aspect of the narrator’s own personality; note how, after the above statement, he adds harriedly, “I affirm—I swear—that I had no share in these extreme aspirations”—a textbook instance of the conscious mind sloughing off responsibility for its subconscious fantasies.

  In the end, “Hypnos” is a subtilisation of a theme already broached in several earlier tales, notably “Beyond the Wall of Sleep”—the notion that certain “dreams” provide access to other realms of entity beyond that of the five senses or waking world. There are, indeed, several points of similarity between “Hypnos” and “Beyond the Wall of Sleep”: aside from the above passage on the nature of dreams, there is the narrator’s sensations of “occasionally tearing through certain well-marked and typical obstacles,” similar to Joe Slater’s desire (or that of the astral body possessing him) to “soar through abysses of emptiness, burning every obstacle that stood in his way”; and just as Slater has some connexion with the star Algol, the narrator of “Hypnos” finds that his friend is weirdly attracted to the constellation Corona Borealis. “Hypnos,” therefore, already begins that tendency which we will find over and over again in Lovecraft—the tendency to rewrite certain scenarios in order to produce the most effective treatment of the core idea.

  The fact that the narrator of “Hypnos” is a sculptor is of some importance. A paper by Steven J. Mariconda provides a brilliant analysis of the story and its relation to Lovecraft’s developing aesthetic theory.[69] I shall treat that theory at length in a later chapter, but here it is worth noting that the theme of expanding sense-perception—already broached in several tales, notably “From Beyond”—becomes a crucial element in Lovecraft’s conception of the aesthetic process. In a 1929 letter he declares that the function of each work of art is to provide a distinctive vision of the world, in such a way that this vision becomes comprehensible to others:

  I’d say that good art means the ability of any one man to pin down in some permanent and intelligible medium a sort of idea of what he sees in Nature that nobody else sees. In other words, to make the other fellow grasp, through skilled selective care in interpretative reproduction or symbolism, some inkling of what only the artist himself could possibly see in the actual objective scene itself.

  The result is that, by appreciating many different works of art each with their own distinctive vision, “We see and feel more in Nature” and accordingly attain a “faint approximation of an approach to the mystic substance of absolute reality itself . . .”[70] In “Hypnos” Lovecraft has rendered the conception horrific: the artist narrator and his friend (who, while not being an artist himself, is of such transcendent beauty that he is himself a work of art) now blasphemously seek to transfer this aesthetic conception into the realm of the real world—to attempt some actual (not aesthetic) mastery of the “visible universe and more . . .”

  “Hypnos” appeared, without its dedication to Loveman, in the National Amateur for May 1923. It might be thought to be one of Lovecraft’s few non-Dunsanian fantasies: while nominally set in England, so much of the action of the tale occurs either in the protagonists’ minds or in the realms of supra-reality to which they gain access that the result is quite otherworldly. Although perhaps slightly overwritten, it deserves neither the contempt Lovecraft heaped upon it in later years nor the casual dismissal it has received at the hands of later critics.

  Shortly after writing “Hypnos” Lovecraft began a series of peregrinations that would not end until October. First on the agenda was Lovecraft’s first trip out of New England—his New York jaunt of April 6–12. The trip was, of course, arranged by Sonia. She had visited Cleveland on business sometime in late 1921 or early 1922, and there met both Samuel Loveman and Alfred Galpin, who had temporarily settled there after finishing his work at Lawrence College. Still taken with the idea of convening a group of Lovecraft’s best friends in New York, Sonia persuaded Loveman to come to the metropolis to look for work. Loveman arrived on April 1 but had little success in job-hunting, although in later years he would secure good work with various antiquarian book dealers. As a way of keeping Loveman in the city—and, coincidentally, of uprooting Lovecraft from his hermitry—Sonia telephoned Lovecraft and urged him to come down to meet his longtime correspondent. Loveman, Morton, and Kleiner added their encouragement, and Lovecraft’s new protégé Frank Long was also likely to be on hand. These massed invitations did the trick, and Lovecraft caught the 10.06 train from Providence on the 6th.

  Five hours later he saw the “Cyclopean outlines of New-York”[71] for the first time. Lovecraft’s lengthiest account of his six-day journey, in a letter to Maurice W. Moe of May 18, 1922, is (at least as published in Selected Letters) a trifle difficult to follow on a day-to-day basis, but there was clearly an endless round of discussion along with museum visiting, sightseeing (they ascended to the top of the Woolworth Building, then the tallest structure in the city), bookstore-hunting, and all the other things that most tourists of a bookish sort do when they hit the big city. Sonia magnanimously turned over her own apartment at 259 Parkside Avenue in Brooklyn to Loveman and Lovecraft, herself sleeping in a neighbour’s apartment. She reports in her memoir at being “amazed at myself” for her “boldness”[72] in inviting two men to be guests in her flat. She also notes that she took Lovecraft for the first time to an Italian restaurant, where he fell in love with spaghetti and meatballs but refused to drink wine.

  Certainly the high point for Lovecraft was meeting two of his closest friends, Loveman and Long. Loveman read his works-in-progress, The Hermaphrodite and The Sphinx (a prose drama), which Lovecraft pronounced (correctly) to be masterpieces. As for Long, he is

  an exquisite boy of twenty who hardly looks fifteen. He is dark and slight, with a bushy wealth of almost black hair and a delicate, beautiful face still a stranger to the gillette. I think he likes the tiny collection of lip-hairs—about six on one side and five on the other—which may with assiduous care some day help to enhance his genuine resemblance to his chief idol—Edgar Allan Poe. . . . A scholar; a fantaisiste; a prose-poet; a sincere and intelligent disciple of Poe, Baudelaire, and the French decadents.[73]

  Lovecraft—whose objection to moustaches and beards was unrelenting—would tease Long about his “moustachelet” for years. It really never did seem to get much bigger.

  Lovecraft of course met often with Sonia, and even once met her “flapper offspring” Florence—a “pert, spoiled, and ultra-independent infant rather more hard-boiled of visage than her benignant mater.” Sonia cooked several meals for the gang at her place, which even the ascetic Lovecraft admitted to enjoying. One of the most provocative passages in her memoir relates to an event toward the end of Lovecraft’s stay:

  Soon S. L. returned to Cleveland and H. P. remained. My neighbor who so kindly made room for me had a beautiful Persian cat which she brought to my apartment. As soon as H. P. saw that cat he made “love” to it. He seemed to have a language that the feline brother understood, for it curled right up in his lap and purred contentedly.

  Half in earnest, half in jest I remarked, “What a lot of perfectly good affection to waste on a mere cat, when some woman might highly appreciate it!” His retort was, “How can any woman love a face like mine?” My counter-retort was, “A mother can and some who are not mothers would not have to try very hard.” We all laughed while Felis was enjoying some more stroking.[74]

  At this point one hardly need belabour Lovecraft’s inferiority complex about his appearance, a simultaneous result of his mother’s influence (w
hich makes Sonia’s remark about mothers a trifle unfortunate) and an actual problem with ingrown facial hairs. But Sonia’s intentions were already becoming clear, although she herself may not yet have been wholly aware of them. I doubt if anyone—even Winifred Jackson—had ever said anything like the above to Lovecraft before.

  Lovecraft naturally rhapsodised about the spectacular New York skyline, which he saw from a fine vantage point on Manhattan Bridge. But when he examined some parts of the city at somewhat closer range, his views were quite different. Consider this description of the lower East Side:

  My gawd—what a filthy dump! I thought Providence had slums, and antique Bostonium as well; but damn me if I ever saw anything like the sprawling sty-atmosphere of N.Y.’s lower East Side. We walked—at my suggestion—in the middle of the street, for contact with the heterogeneous sidewalk denizens, spilled out of their bulging brick kennels as if by a spawning beyond the capacity of the places, was not by any means to be sought. At times, though, we struck peculiarly deserted areas—these swine have instinctive swarming movements, no doubt, which no ordinary biologist can fathom. Gawd knows what they are . . . a bastard mess of stewing mongrel flesh without intellect, repellent to eye, nose, and imagination—would to heaven a kindly gust of cyanogen could asphyxiate the whole gigantic abortion, end the misery, and clean out the place.[75]

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