I am providence the life.., p.66

I Am Providence: The Life and Times of H. P. Lovecraft (2 VOLUMES), page 66

 

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



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  The racism of this passage is only what one would have expected of Lovecraft; in effect, he was finally waking up to the realities of the world. The walls of his sheltered and sequestered life were tumbling brick by brick, and an initial reaction of fear and loathing was predictable.

  By Tuesday, April 11, Lovecraft was already quite tired, and upon returning home on the 12th he found himself utterly exhausted; there was also a mass of letters, parcels, and papers awaiting him. He gradually pulled himself together and by early May was already expressing the opinion that “now I must meet that delectable little imp Galpin, and life would be complete!”[76] But Cleveland seemed such an enormous distance away that a trip there seemed a pipe dream. Instead, after six weeks Lovecraft undertook a further round of travelling a little closer to home.

  In late May he visited Myrta Alice Little again in New Hampshire. After several days in Westville, Myrta dropped him off at Dover (the “farthest north I ever was in my life!”[77]) as she and her mother continued up to their summer camp at Lake Winnepesaukee. Lovecraft found this car trip “the crowning event of the journey”:

  . . . a trip back through Time, extending 75 to 200 years, and plunging me into the heart of an ancient New-England which I had mourned as dead and buried. Words cannot convey the charms of the winding, hilly road; the placid pastoral panoramas at every turn; the magic glimpses of cool centuried farmhouses amidst old gardens and under venerable and gigantic trees. . . . The villages were enchanting—opium-dreams of delicate foliage and old white houses. Portsmouth is a city of the Georgian age—there is a glorious atavism to be derived from a ride through its shady residence streets . . .[78]

  It is not too early to remark here a feature that we will find again and again on Lovecraft’s journeys—the keenness of perception that allows him to absorb to the full the topographical, historical, and social features of regions that many of us might heedlessly pass over. Lovecraft was exceptionally alive to whatever milieu he found himself in, and this accounts both for raptures like the above and for the violence of his reaction to places like Chinatown, which defied all his norms of beauty, repose, and historic rootedness.

  In early or mid-June was the Cambridge trip to hear David Van Bush lecture. Coming back to Boston, he stopped off at a house jointly occupied by Edith Miniter and Charles A. A. Parker, spent the night at the Hotel Brunswick (where the NAPA convention had been held the year before), and “‘did’ the art museum and all the old grave-yards.”[79]

  Later that month Sonia, striking while the iron was hot, found a way to spend time in New England and do much visiting with Lovecraft. She was representing her firm at Magnolia, Massachusetts, which Lovecraft describes as “an ultra-fashionable watering-place on the coast near Gloucester, an hour’s ride northeast from Boston.”[80] She came down to Providence on Sunday, June 16, meeting both aunts and becoming so carried away that she tried to persuade Annie to move permanently to New York and share her apartment. Although this idea was naturally rejected, Lovecraft added tellingly: “. . . strange to say, my aunt [Annie] likes her immensely despite a racial and social chasm which she doesn’t often bridge.” It is a plausible conjecture that Annie’s friends were ordinarily neither Jewish nor independent businesswomen.

  Sonia persuaded Lovecraft to spend several days with her in Gloucester and Magnolia in late June and early July. The cliffs of Magnolia really are a delight—a place where “pearl-grey mists surge out of the sky to mix with the sea.”[81] Lovecraft went up around June 26 and stayed until July 5, stopping at the same house (whether a private residence or a boarding-house is unclear) in Magnolia where Sonia was staying and taking meals at a boarding-house in the main village square. Sonia tells what happened one evening when they were strolling along the esplanade:

  . . . the full moon reflecting its light in the water, a peculiar and unusual noise heard at a distance as of a loud snorting and grunting, the shimmering light forming a moon-path on the water, the round tops of the submerged piles in the water exposed a rope connecting them like a huge spider’s guy-line, gave the vivid imagination full play for an interesting weird tale. “Oh, Howard,” I exclaimed, “here you have the setting for a real strange and mysterious story.” Said he, “Go ahead, and write it.” “Oh, no, I couldn’t do it justice,” I answered. “Try it. Tell me what the scene pictures to your imagination.” And as we walked along we neared the edge of the water. Here I described my interpretation of the scene and the noises. His encouragement was so enthusiastic and sincere that when we parted for the night, I sat up and wrote the general outline which he later revised and edited.[82]

  The result was “The Horror at Martin’s Beach,” which appeared in Weird Tales for November 1923 (under Sonia’s name only) as “The Invisible Monster.” It is, I fear, not much of a story. Chronologically, this is the first weird story that Lovecraft could be said to have revised instead of collaborated on, although the distinction here is perhaps not very significant: it only affects his refusal to affix his name on the piece as an actual collaborator (as gentlemanly a gesture as his taking second billing for the collaborations with Winifred Jackson and Anna Helen Crofts); he certainly accepted no pay for his revisory work, as he would for later tales revised or ghostwritten for clients.

  “The Horror at Martin’s Beach” is the wild and improbable story of an enormous sea creature (“fifty feet in length, of roughly cylindrical shape, and about ten feet in diameter”) killed by the crew of a fishing smack at Martin’s Beach—an unspecified and imaginary locale, but presumably near Gloucester, which is mentioned several times by name. The creature is proved by scientists to be a mere infant, hatched only a few days previously, and probably originating from the deep sea; the day after it is placed on a wooden frame for exhibition, it and the vessel that caught it disappear without a trace. Some days later a terrified cry for help emerges from the sea, and the lifeguards throw out a life-preserver to assist the stricken individual; but the life-preserver, attached to a long rope, appears to have been grasped by some nameless entity that pulls it out to sea, and when the lifeguards and other individuals attempt to reel it in, they not only find themselves unable to do so, but find that they cannot release their hands from the rope. They are inexorably dragged to their deaths in the sea.

  The idea is that the parent of the huge infant creature has not only grasped the life-preserver but has also hypnotised the rescuers so that their wills no longer function (this is why a scholarly article, “Are Hypnotic Powers Confined to Recognized Humanity?” by a Prof. Alton, is cited early in the text). This does not seem a very compelling kernel for even a 3000-word short story, so Lovecraft (and it is surely he) is forced to pep up the narrative with his now typical verbal flamboyance: “I recall thinking of those heads, and the bulging eyes they must contain; eyes that might well reflect all the fright, panic, and delirium of a malignant universe—all the sorrow, sin, and misery, blasted hopes and unfulfilled desires, fear, loathing and anguish of the ages since time’s beginning; eyes alight with all the soul-racking pain of eternally blazing infernos.” A passage like this fails because it is inappropriate to the circumstances: there has been an insufficient build-up for it, and it comes off sounding forced and bathetic.

  Another story that may have been written at this time is “Four O’Clock.” In a letter to Winfield Townley Scott, Sonia declared that Lovecraft only suggested changes in the prose of the tale,[83] hence I concluded that it does not belong in the Lovecraft corpus and did not include it in the revised version of The Horror in the Museum and Other Revisions (1989). Judging, however, from her later memoir, it does not appear as if Sonia was a very skilled, polished, or even coherent writer, so that Lovecraft probably did contribute something to this story, which is even slighter than its predecessor. Here we find some individual (whether a man or a woman is never made clear) whose mortal enemy died at four o’clock in the morning and who now fears that some nameless fate will now overtake him at that same hour. He sees some cloud of vapou
r outside his window gradually form itself into the shape of a clock with hands pointing to four, and later sees other nebulous objects take the same shape. The vapour turns to flame and takes the form of the enemy’s face, and the narrator realises that “the end is near.”

  As a study of monomania—it is never clarified whether the visions seen by the narrator are real or imagined—this story is intermittently effective, but it too is spoiled by overwriting. And it certainly seems as if some of the prose is Lovecraft’s, since it features so many of the mannerisms—piled-up adjectives, frequent italicisation of key words, even characteristic punctuational usages—typical of his fiction at this time. But it is not a work we would be much the poorer without. The story was not published in Lovecraft’s lifetime, appearing only in Something about Cats and Other Pieces (1949). There is, apparently, a third and as yet unpublished weird tale by Sonia; whether Lovecraft had any involvement in it is not known.[84]

  Sonia adds a startling note about what transpired the day after “The Horror at Martin’s Beach” was conceived:

  His continued enthusiasm the next day was so genuine and sincere that in appreciation I surprised and shocked him right then and there by kissing him. He was so flustered that he blushed, then he turned pale. When I chaffed him about it he said he had not been kissed since he was a very small child and that he was never kissed by any woman, not even by his mother or aunts, since he grew to manhood, and that he would probably never be kissed again. (But I fooled him.)[85]

  This really is pretty remarkable. First, if Lovecraft’s statement here is true, it certainly makes his “romance” with Winifred Jackson an exceptionally platonic one. Second, the matter of his not being kissed even by his aunts or mother since he was a young man makes us wonder about the degree of reserve in this old New England family. Lovecraft’s affection for his aunts—and theirs for him—is unquestioned; but such an unusual lack of physical intimacy is anomalous even for the time and for their social milieu. No wonder Lovecraft was so slow to respond to a woman who so openly expressed affection for him. His emotions had clearly been stunted in this direction.

  This week-long trip with Sonia was, as far as I can tell, the first time Lovecraft had spent any considerable amount of time alone in the company of a woman with whom he was not related. There is no evidence that Lovecraft made any such excursions with Winifred Jackson. Sonia was keen on pursuing matters and managed to get up to Rhode Island again on Sunday, July 16, when she and Lovecraft went to Newport and wrote a joint postcard to Lillian (the predictable “wish you were here” stuff).[86]

  Ten days later, on Wednesday, July 26, we find Lovecraft writing again from Sonia’s apartment in Brooklyn: somehow she had managed to persuade him to undertake the long trip to Cleveland to see Galpin and Loveman. He spent only three days in a stopover in New York (clearly staying in Sonia’s apartment, while she again presumably stayed with the neighbour), for on Saturday, July 29, at 6.30 P.M., he boarded the Lake Shore Limited at Grand Central Station for the long train ride to Cleveland. The midwestern scenery did not impress him: “It is quite unlike—and inferior to—New England, having vast level stretches, sparser vegetation and foliage, and different types of architecture. (Flatter roofs, etc.) The villages are insufferably dismal—like ‘Main St.’ They have no ancient features, and totally lack the mellow charm and scenery which make New-England villages so delightful.”[87] The reference to Sinclair Lewis’s novel of 1920 does not mean that Lovecraft had actually read it, since it was both a critical and popular success and was no doubt on everybody’s tongue; Babbitt (1922) would come out later that summer and would add several words to the English language—Babbitesque, Babbitry—that Lovecraft, in his Decadent épater le bourgeois phase, would find very useful.

  The train ride took sixteen hours, and Lovecraft arrived in Cleveland at 10.30 A.M. on the 30th. He was greeted at the station by Galpin, who, Lovecraft recognised immediately. Their initial exchange of greetings was not a very distinguished one for these two Nietzschean philosophers:

  “So this is my Son Alfredus!”

  “It sure is!”

  But after that a steady stream of conversation flowed. Lovecraft stayed until August 15, mostly at Galpin’s residence at 9231 Birchdale Avenue (the building is now no longer standing). Their habits were roughly in accord with Lovecraft’s own behaviour-patterns at home: “We rise at noon, eat twice a day, and retire after midnight . . .” Lovecraft takes pride in telling Lillian how boyish and unconventional he has become: he has given up wearing his vest and has bought a belt (probably because of the hot weather); he has bought soft collars for the first time; and he is going about hatless like Galpin except on formal occasions. “Can you picture me vestless, hatless, soft-collared, and belted, ambling about with a boy of twenty, as if I were no older?” But Lovecraft is careful to reassure Lillian that no social faux pas is being committed: “One can be free and easy in a provincial city—when I hit New York again I shall resume the solemn manner and sedate vestments befitting my advanced years . . .”

  An interesting note on the state of Lovecraft’s physical and psychological health is recorded in a later letter to Lillian:

  As for the kind of time I am having—it is simply great! I have just the incentive I need to keep me active & free from melancholy, & I look so well that I doubt if any Providence person would know me by sight! I have no headaches or depressed spells—in short, I am for the time being really alive & in good health & spirits. The companionship of youth & artistic taste is what keeps one going![88]

  And Lovecraft would later wonder why, around the age of thirty, his health suddenly began to improve! Freedom from his mother’s (and, to a lesser degree, his aunts’) stifling control, travel to different parts of the country, and the company of congenial friends who regarded him with fondness, respect, and admiration will do wonders for a cloistered recluse who never travelled more than a hundred miles away from home up to the age of thirty-one.

  Naturally, they met Samuel Loveman (staying at the Lonore Apartments around the corner) frequently, and it was through Loveman that Lovecraft met several other distinguished littérateurs—George Kirk (1898–1962), the bookseller who had just published Loveman’s edition of Ambrose Bierce’s Twenty-one Letters (1922), and, most notably, the young Hart Crane (1899–1932) and his circle of literary and artistic friends. Lovecraft reports attending a meeting of “all the members of Loveman’s literary circle”: “It gave me a novel sensation to be ‘lionised’ so much beyond my deserts by men as able as the painter Summers [sic], Loveman, Galpin, &c. I met some new figures—Crane the poet, Lazar [sic], an ambitious young literary student now in the army, & a delightful young fellow named Carroll Lawrence, who writes weird stories & wants to see all of mine.”[89] I shall have more to say about both Kirk and Crane later, since Lovecraft would meet them again during his New York period; for now we can note this brief meeting with William Sommer, the watercolourist and draughtsman, William Lescaze, later to become an internationally known architect, Edward Lazare (whom Lovecraft would meet again in New York, and who in later years would become distinguished as a longtime editor of American Book-Prices Current), and others of Crane’s circle. Crane had just begun to publish his poetry in magazines, although his first volume, White Buildings, would not appear until 1926. Lovecraft must, however, have read Crane’s “Pastorale” (in the Dial for October 1921), for he wrote a parody of it entitled “Plaster-All.” While an amusing take-off of what Lovecraft believed to be the formless free verse of the modernists, the poem is really a sort of impressionistic—dare one say imagistic?—account of his Cleveland trip:

  Here it was,

  That in the light of an interpreter,

  Soon I met and succeeded

  In surrounding myself

  With a few of the Intelligentsia

  That Cleveland affords,

  Loveman, Sommer, Lescaze, Hatfield, Guenther. . . .

  But Loveman

  Left the fold early
pity, yes!

  The mention of the minor composer Gordon Hatfield is interesting, since by all accounts this is the first openly homosexual person Lovecraft ever met. His response—as recorded about a year and a half later—is predictable: “To be sure, I recall him! Dear, dear! how he used to sit cross-legged on the floor at Eglin’s, little white sailor’s cap tucked gracefully under one arm, sport shirt open at the neck, gazing soulfully up at Samuelus and discoursing of arts and harmonies of life! I’m afraid he thought me a very crude, stupid, commonplace, masculine sort of person . . .”[90] He says elsewhere: “I didn’t know whether to kiss it or kill it!”[91] Interestingly, he remarks that Hatfield and Crane were mortal enemies. Evidently Lovecraft either did not know that Crane was gay (as was Loveman) or never held it against him—probably the former.

  Another person with whom Lovecraft came into contact at this time, although only by correspondence, was Clark Ashton Smith. Loveman and Smith were longtime correspondents, and the former showed Lovecraft Smith’s paintings and sketches, while Galpin and Kirk, respectively, presented Lovecraft with copies of Smith’s early collections of poetry, The Star-Treader and Other Poems (1912) and Odes and Sonnets (1918). So taken was Lovecraft with both the pictorial and literary material that he forthwith wrote Smith a fan letter toward the end of his Cleveland stay:

  I trust you will pardon the liberty taken by an absolute stranger in writing you, for I cannot refrain from expressing the appreciation aroused in me by your drawings & poetry, as shown me by my friend, Mr. Samuel Loveman, whom I am now visiting in Cleveland. Your book, containing matter only chronologically classifiable as juvenilia, impresses me as a work of the most distinguished genius . . .[92]

 
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