I am providence the life.., p.67
I Am Providence: The Life and Times of H. P. Lovecraft (2 VOLUMES), page 67
This almost effusively flattering letter initiated a fifteen-year correspondence that would end only with Lovecraft’s death.
Clark Ashton Smith (1893–1961) has suffered an anomalous fate precisely because his work is so distinctive and unclassifiable. His two early collections of poetry—followed by several more, including Ebony and Crystal (1922), Sandalwood (1925), and The Dark Chateau (1951), and culminating with the enormous but much-delayed Selected Poems (1971)—were in a fin de siècle vein somewhat in the manner of Swinburne or George Sterling, but very distinctively Smith’s own. Indeed, upon the publication of that first volume, at the age of nineteen, Smith—a native of California who was born in Long Valley and lived most of his life in Auburn—was hailed by local reviewers as a new Keats or Shelley. These accolades were perhaps not far from the truth. Consider the opening of “The Star-Treader”:
A voice cried to me in a dawn of dreams,
Saying, “Make haste: the webs of death and birth
Are brushed away, and all the threads of earth
Wear to the breaking; spaceward gleams
Thine ancient pathway of the suns,
Whose flame is part of thee;
And the deep gulfs abide coevally
Whose darkness runs
Through all thy spirit’s mystery. . . .”
To my mind, this and other of Smith’s early poems are quite superior to the “cosmic” poetry of George Sterling (1869–1926), although Smith has clearly learnt from Sterling’s two long poems, The Testimony of the Suns (1903) and A Wine of Wizardry (1907). The problem for Smith—or, rather, for his recognition as a significant poet—is that the tradition of weird or fantastic poetry is not very deep or substantial; moreover, modern enthusiasts (and critics) of weird literature seem uncomfortable with poetry, so that the tremendous body of Smith’s verse has been ignored by exactly those readers who might be expected to champion it and keep it alive. And although Smith wrote some free verse, much of his work is written both in formal metres and in a very elevated, metaphor-laden diction in utter contrast to the flat, conversational, and (to my thinking) entirely prosaic work of the “poets” who, following the dreary example of William Carlos Williams and Ezra Pound, are currently fashionable. Is it any wonder that Smith’s poetry, after its initial praise on the West Coast, fell on deaf ears and remains one of the lost jewels of twentieth-century literature?
Smith did not help his cause by churning out reams of fantasy and science fiction tales in the late ’20s and early ’30s, some of it inspired by Lovecraft, or at least written under Lovecraft’s encouragement. This body of work retains a following, although it is something of an acquired taste, but to me it is much inferior to his verse; I shall have more to say of it later. If Smith did any good work in prose, it is in the prose-poem, some of which Lovecraft read and admired in Ebony and Crystal. This work is toweringly impressive, and it could be maintained quite plausibly that Smith is the best prose-poet in English; but this form is too recondite to inspire much of a following or much critical attention.
As for Smith’s art work, I find it quite amateurish and crude, and have no idea why Lovecraft so rhapsodised over it. Smith was a self-taught artist, and it shows; this work is, to be sure, reminiscent of primitive art, and occasionally some startlingly weird effects are produced, but much of it—in pen and ink, crayon, and oil—is imaginatively powerful but technically very backward. His small sculptures and figurines are somewhat more interesting. Lovecraft, however, never ceased to admire Smith as another Blake who could both write great work and illustrate it.
Smith did in fact come into contact with George Sterling prior to the publication of his first volume, and their voluminous joint correspondence—full of Sterling’s careful dissections of Smith’s early work—is highly revealing; but even Sterling’s star is falling, and it is an open question whether the forthcoming three-volume edition of his collected poems and verse plays will reverse his descent into obscurity. Smith was at this time living in Auburn with his aged and steadily declining parents. He affected a certain debonair, decadent air: he was fond of wine and women (although he would not marry until he was past sixty), and heaped towering scorn upon the ignorant suburbanites who failed to acknowledge his genius. In the early 1920s he had a column in the Auburn Journal that he filled with barbed aphorisms, but these are not very distinguished. His lack of financial success as a writer and his difficult home life left him in poverty for most of his career: his cottage outside of Auburn had no running water, and there were times when he was compelled to work at fruit-picking and other menial jobs. But literature remained his chief object of devotion until at least the mid-1930s. Two years before meeting Lovecraft he wrote his longest and greatest poem, The Hashish-Eater; or, The Apocalypse of Evil (included in Ebony and Crystal). It is by no means remarkable that Lovecraft would be transported by this nearly 600-line riot of cosmic imagery:
Bow down: I am the emperor of dreams;
I crown me with the million-colored sun
Of secret worlds incredible, and take
Their trailing skies for vestment when I soar,
Throned on the mounting zenith, and illume
The spaceward-flown horizon infinite.
As Lovecraft remarked: “The magnificence of The Hashish-Eater is beyond description . . .” He would, in his small way, help to promote Smith by reviewing Ebony and Crystal in L’Alouette for January 1924—the only formal book review Lovecraft ever wrote.
For the time being, however, it was the benefits and delights of travel that were in the forefront of Lovecraft’s mind. Leaving for New York on August 15, he spent at least two months as Sonia’s guest in Brooklyn, making an unheard-of total of nearly three solid months away from 598 Angell Street. This long trip was made possible by the unstinting generosity of Lovecraft’s friends: just as Loveman, Galpin, and Kirk insisted on picking up many of his expenses (especially meals) in Cleveland, so did Long (or, more precisely, his parents) frequently have Lovecraft over for lunch or dinner, and no doubt Sonia made or paid for many meals as well. I do not believe there was any condescension in this: Lovecraft’s friends surely knew of his lean purse, but their hospitality was both a product of their own kindness and their genuine fondness for Lovecraft and their desire to have him stay as long as possible. We shall find this becoming a repeated pattern in all Lovecraft’s peregrinations for the rest of his life.
How did the aunts take this extended departure of their only nephew? As early as August 9, in Cleveland, Lovecraft writes to Lillian, rather touchingly: “I am sorry you miss me—though much flattered that you should do so!” In September Sonia and Lovecraft attempted to persuade one or both of the aunts to come and join them in New York; the staid Lillian declined, but Annie—who in her younger days was very much the socialite—accepted. On September 24 Sonia and Lovecraft wrote a joint letter to her; Sonia’s bit is typically saccharine (“Gee! I’m so glad you can come! . . . My Dear, I do hope you can stay a long time!”), and Lovecraft’s segment states that he has by now become such an expert guide to New York City that he can lead her anywhere.
Lovecraft’s travels in the area were indeed becoming extensive. Among the sites taken in on this jaunt were the very recently opened George Grey Barnard Cloisters on the northern tip of Manhattan, a spectacular mediaeval French chapel brought piecemeal from Europe and reassembled stone by stone; the Van Cortlandt mansion (1748) and the Dyckman Cottage (1783); the lavish expanse of Prospect Park in Brooklyn (no doubt seen on his earlier trip also, since it is near 259 Parkside); the great second-hand bookshops on Fourth Avenue (on the lower East Side) and East 59th Street, which Long, although a native of the city, had incredibly never explored (they are now all gone); James Ferdinand Morton’s apartment in Harlem (Lovecraft’s first experience with the area that, for the past decade, had been steadily becoming a black enclave); the Jumel mansion (1765) on Washington Heights, containing relics of George Washington; Greenwich Village (whose boh
Relatively few new acquaintances were made on this trip, Lovecraft staying pretty much with Long, Morton, Kleiner, and Sonia (who was free only on weekends). In late September Lovecraft was introduced to the young amateur Paul Livingston Keil, who accompanied Lovecraft, Morton, and Long to the Poe cottage in Fordham and took a celebrated photograph of them at that site. Years later Keil wrote a brief memoir of the excursion.
Another interesting colleague encountered at this time was Everett McNeil, a writer of boys’ stories whom Lovecraft would meet frequently during his New York period. He was then living in one of the worst areas of the city, Hell’s Kitchen on the far west side of Manhattan in the 40s. Lovecraft, ever fascinated by urban and social decay, writes of the region vividly:
Hell’s Kitchen is the last remnant of the ancient slums—& by ancient I mean slums in which the denizens are not sly, cringing foreigners; but “tough” and energetic members of the superior Nordic stock—Irish, German, & American. The slinking Dago or Jew of the lower East Side is a strange, furtive animal . . . he uses poison instead of fists, automatic revolvers instead of bricks & blackjacks. But west of Broadway the old toughs have made their last stand. . . . Squalor is extreme, but not so odorous as in the foreign districts. Churches flourish—for all the natives are devout & violent Roman Catholics. It was odd to see slums in which the denizens are Nordic—with shapely faces, & often light hair & blue eyes.
Lovecraft evidently failed to conclude from this that it was not “inferior” blood but socioeconomic disparity that produced these “Nordic” slums.
On the evening of September 16th Lovecraft and Kleiner explored the exquisite Dutch Reformed Church (1796) on Flatbush Avenue in Brooklyn, quite near to Sonia’s apartment. This magnificent structure contains a sinister old churchyard at its rear, full of crumbling slabs in Dutch. What did Lovecraft do? “From one of the crumbling gravestones—dated 1747—I chipped a small piece to carry away. It lies before me as I write—& ought to suggest some sort of a horror-story. I must some night place it beneath my pillow as I sleep . . . who can say what thing might not come out of the centuried earth to exact vengeance for his desecrated tomb?” True enough, the incident led directly to the writing of “The Hound,” probably in October after he returned home. This story involves the escapades of the narrator and his friend St John (based very loosely on Kleiner, whom Lovecraft referred to in correspondence as Randolph St John, as if he were a relative of Henry St John, Viscount Bolingbroke) in that “hideous extremity of human outrage, the abhorred practice of grave-robbing.” These two “neurotic virtuosi,” who are “wearied with the commonplaces of a prosaic world,” can find in this loathsome activity the only respite from their “devastating ennui.” They are true aesthetes in morbidity:
The predatory excursions on which we collected our unmentionable treasures were always artistically memorable events. We were no vulgar ghouls, but worked only under certain conditions of mood, landscape, environment, weather, season, and moonlight. These pastimes were to us the most exquisite form of aesthetic expression, and we gave their details a fastidious technical care. An inappropriate hour, a jarring lighting effect, or a clumsy manipulation of the damp sod, would almost totally destroy for us that ecstatic titillation which followed the exhumation of some ominous, grinning secret of the earth.
One day they seek the grave of an especially redoubtable individual in Holland—“one buried for five centuries, who had himself been a ghoul in his time and had stolen a potent thing from a mighty sepulchre.” When they unearth this grave, they find “much—amazingly much” left of the object despite the lapse of half a millennium. They find an amulet depicting the “oddly conventionalised figure of a crouching winged hound, or sphinx with a semi-canine face,” and realise that they must bear this prize off for the unholy museum of charnel things they keep in their home in England.
Upon their return, strange things begin to happen. Their home seems besieged with a nameless whirring or flapping, and over the moors they hear the “faint, distant baying” as of a gigantic hound. One night, as St John is walking home alone from the station, he is torn to ribbons by some “frightful carnivorous thing.” As he lies dying, he manages to utter, “The amulet—that damned thing—” The narrator realises that he must return the amulet to the Holland grave, but one night in Rotterdam thieves rob him of the thing. Later the city is shocked by a “red death” in a “squalid thieves’ den,” The narrator, driven by some fatality, returns to the churchyard and digs up the old grave. As he uncovers it, he finds “the bony thing my friend and I had robbed; not clean and placid as we had seen it then, but covered with caked blood and shreds of alien flesh and hair, and leering sentiently at me with phosphorescent sockets and sharp ensanguined fangs yawning twistedly in mockery of my inevitable doom.” The narrator, after telling his tale, proposes to “seek with my revolver the oblivion which is my only refuge from the unnamed and unnamable.”
“The Hound” has been roundly abused for being wildly overwritten; but it has somehow managed to escape most critics’ attention that the story is an obvious self-parody. Lovecraft has rarely been given credit for being master, not slave, of his prose style: we have already seen how earlier stories—“Beyond the Wall of Sleep,” “Facts concerning the Late Arthur Jermyn and His Family,” “The Music of Erich Zann”—show an admirable restraint in diction and imagery, and it becomes transparently obvious that Lovecraft has chosen the overheated prose and histrionic incidents of “The Hound” deliberately. Parody becomes increasingly evident from the obvious literary allusions (St John’s “that damned thing” echoing the celebrated tale by Ambrose Bierce; the “red death” and the indefinite manner of dating [“On the night of September 24, 19—”], meant as playful nods to Poe; the baying of the hound clearly meant to recall Doyle’s The Hound of the Baskervilles; and, as Steven J. Mariconda has demonstrated, many tips of the hat to Joris-Karl Huysmans, particularly A Rebours) and also from such grotesque utterances as “Bizarre manifestations were now too frequent to count.” And yet, the story is undeniably successful as an experiment in sheer flamboyance and excess, so long as one keeps in mind that Lovecraft was clearly aiming for such an effect and was doing so at least partially with tongue in cheek.
Some autobiographical touches in the story are worth commenting upon. While St John is clearly meant to be Kleiner, the connexion rests only in the name, as there is not much description of his character. I wonder whether the museum of tomb-loot collected by the two protagonists is a playful reference to Samuel Loveman’s quite impressive collection of objets d’art (not taken from tombs, one must hasten to add): Lovecraft first saw this collection in September and was tremendously impressed by it. The original typescript of the story includes a reference to a very recent colleague: “A locked portfolio, bound in tanned human skin, held the unknown and unnamable drawings of Clark Ashton Smith.” Lovecraft revised this passage (on the advice of C. M. Eddy, Jr) before submitting it to Weird Tales, where the tale was published in the issue for February 1924. Another piquant autobiographical connexion relates to one of the most striking images in the tale. As the narrator is attempting to rebury the amulet, he encounters a “queer interruption”: “a lean vulture darted down out of the cold sky and pecked frantically at the grave-earth until I killed him with a blow of my spade.” Consider a letter to Maurice W. Moe in which he tells of his pilfering of the gravestone fragment: “A flock of birds descended from the sky and pecked queerly at the ancient turf, as if seeking some strange kind of nourishment in that hoary and sepulchral place.”
In terms of Lovecraft’s developing pseudomythology, “The Hou
Vathek—which Lovecraft first read in late July 1921—is of some interest in itself, as this spectacular work of exotic fantasy—in which a decadent caliph is forced for his sins to descend to Eblis, the Islamic underworld, and face nameless tortures—seems to have fired Lovecraft’s imagination at this time and later. The frequent mentions of ghouls in Vathek may have had some influence on “The Hound”; Henley notes: “Goul or ghul, in Arabic, signifies any terrifying object which deprives people of the use of their senses; hence it became the appellative of that species of monster which was supposed to haunt forests, cemeteries, and other lonely places, and believed not only to tear in pieces the living, but to dig up and devour the dead.” Lovecraft was taken with this piquant idea and used ghouls—rubbery, doglike creatures for the most part—in many later tales. Vathek also clearly influenced another work written a little earlier—a proposed novel entitled “Azathoth,” which Lovecraft describes in June 1922 as a “weird Vathek-like novel.” What Lovecraft perhaps means by this is that “Azathoth” is an attempt both to capture Vathek’s air of dreamlike fantasy and to imitate its continuous flow of narrative and absence of chapter divisions. He had been thinking of writing “a weird Eastern tale in the 18th century manner; a tale perhaps too long for publication in amateurdom” as early as October 1921, only a few months after reading Vathek and very shortly after borrowing The Episodes of Vathek (long stories narrated by various characters in Vathek but not published until 1912); but unlike Lovecraft’s previous novel idea, The Club of the Seven Dreamers, which was probably never even begun, “Azathoth” was actually started, although only to the extent of about 500 words. Its opening is ponderous:
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