I am providence the life.., p.68

I Am Providence: The Life and Times of H. P. Lovecraft (2 VOLUMES), page 68

 

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



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  When age fell upon the world, and wonder went out of the minds of men; when grey cities reared to smoky skies tall towers grim and ugly, in whose shadow none might dream of the sun or of spring’s flowering meads; when learning stripped earth of her mantle of beauty, and poets sang no more save of twisted phantoms seen with bleared and inward-looking eyes; when these things had come to pass, and childish hopes had gone away forever, there was a man who travelled out of life on a quest into the spaces whither the world’s dreams had fled.

  Lovecraft quotes the entire extant text of “Azathoth” in a letter to Long, adding:

  The rest—for which this introduction prepares the reader, will be material of the Arabian Nights type. I shall defer to no modern critical canon, but shall frankly slip back through the centuries and become a myth-maker with that childish sincerity which no one but the earlier Dunsany has tried to achieve nowadays. I shall go out of the world when I write, with a mind centred not in literary usage, but in the dreams I dreamed when I was six years old or less—the dreams which followed my first knowledge of Sinbad, of Agib, of Baba-Abdallah, and of Sidi-Nonman.[108]

  This may or may not suggest that “Azathoth” was to be a non-supernatural adventure story (such as Clark Ashton Smith wrote voluminously in his youth), but probably the work would at least have had some dreamlike elements. “Azathoth” gains its importance only in light of Lovecraft’s developing aesthetics and in terms of some stories written several years later, so I will take it up again farther on.

  Lovecraft did not do much other writing during his New York stay—he was too busy gallivanting about town and was also occasionally burdened by Bush work, which was tedious but at least brought prompt and welcome cheques that permitted him to extend his sojourn. One little spoof produced probably in late August was the poem “To Zara,” which Lovecraft attempted to pass off to Galpin as a lost poem by Edgar Allan Poe. Although Galpin did not swallow the Poe authorship—he believed the poem to be copied from some standard poet, perhaps the obscure Arthur O’Shaughnessy—he nevertheless praised the poem highly. When, in September, he was let in on the joke, Galpin’s enthusiasm waned. Lovecraft certainly had a laugh here, since Galpin was ordinarily very censorious of Lovecraft’s poetry. The spasm is nothing to write home about: it attempts to imitate Poe’s many variations on the “death of a beautiful woman” trope:

  Pale, lovely ghost—so young, so fair,

  To flutter in sepulchral air—

  To flutter where the taper dies

  Amidst a mourner’s choking sighs!

  Lovecraft finally returned home in mid-October, presumably writing “The Hound” shortly after he got back. Meanwhile Houtain was already asking him for another serial, this time to run in four parts. Lovecraft dawdled on the task through mid-November, but—perhaps because Houtain finally paid up for “Herbert West—Reanimator” and advanced him half the payment for the new story—finally got down to work and wrote “The Lurking Fear” later in the month.[109] Since this story was written in a far more condensed period of time than “Herbert West—Reanimator,” it presents a somewhat greater impression of unity than its predecessor, in spite of the need to provide a shocking conclusion at the end of each segment.

  No one is likely to regard “The Lurking Fear” as one of Lovecraft’s masterworks, even among his early tales; and yet, it is not as contemptible a tale as many critics have deemed it, and once again it contains many foreshadowings of techniques and devices used to better advantage in later works. In spite of a hackneyed melodramatic opening (“There was thunder in the air on the night I went to the deserted mansion atop Tempest Mountain to find the lurking fear”) the tale moves briskly in its account of the narrator’s search for the unknown entity that had wreaked havoc amongst the squatters of the Catskills near the Martense mansion. The narrator is convinced that the haunted mansion must be the seat or locus of the horror, and he takes two colleagues, George Bennett and William Tobey, with him to the place one night. They all sleep in the same bed in one room of the mansion, having provided exits either through the door of the room or the window. Although one of the three is to stay awake while the others rest, some strange drowsiness affects all three. The narrator wakes and finds to his horror that both Bennett and Tobey—sleeping on either side of him—have been snatched away by the thing. But why was he spared?

  The second episode finds the narrator coming upon another associate, Arthur Munroe, to assist him in his endeavours. They know that the lurking fear customarily roams abroad during thunderstorms, and during one such storm they stop in a hamlet to wait it out. Munroe, who has been looking out the window, seems anomalously fascinated by something outside and does not respond to a summons. When the narrator shakes his shoulder, he finds that “Arthur Munroe was dead. And on what remained of his chewed and gouged head there was no longer a face.”

  In the third episode the narrator realises that he must explore the history of the mansion to come to terms with its lurking horror. The mansion had been built in 1670 by Gerrit Martense, a wealthy Dutchman who hated the English; his descendants similarly shunned the people around them and and took to intermarrying with the “numerous menial class about the estate.” One descendant, Jan Martense, seeks to escape this unhealthy reclusiveness and is killed for his pains. The episode ends with a cataclysmic sight of a “nameless thing” in a subterranean tunnel he stumbles upon as he digs in Jan Martense’s grave.

  In the final episode the truth is finally learned: there is not one monster but a whole legion of them. The entire mountain is honeycombed with underground passageways housing loathsome creatures, half apes and half moles: they are the “ultimate product of mammalian degeneration; the frightful outcome of isolated spawning, multiplication, and cannibal nutrition above and below the ground; the embodiment of all the snarling chaos and grinning fear that lurk behind life.” In other words, they are the degenerate descendants of the house of Martense.

  The theme of hereditary degeneration will be a significant one in Lovecraft’s less openly “cosmic” tales; we have already seen it in “Arthur Jermyn,” and we will see it again in “The Rats in the Walls” and “The Shadow over Innsmouth.” Here the evils of inbreeding are exposed at their ghastliest. It would be easy to make an armchair Freudian analysis of this theme—involving such things as Lovecraft’s general coolness toward sex, the frequency with which members of his own ancestry married their cousins, perhaps even his possible awareness of the cause of his father’s death—but I think a racialist interpretation is perhaps more plausible. Perhaps the two work in tandem. But I do not think this theme can be explained away by appeal to the facts of biography: it is expressed with great power in several of Lovecraft’s stories, and its social implications go well beyond the circumstances of his own life.

  There are, of course, some autobiographical touches, although they are rather on the trivial side. Arthur Munroe’s name is clearly borrowed from the Munroe brothers, while Jan Martense was probably taken from the Jan Martense Schenck house (1656) in Flatbush, the oldest existing house in New York City. Lovecraft did not see this house during either of his 1922 New York visits, and may not in fact have learnt of it until after writing “The Lurking Fear”: he speaks of the house in a letter to Maurice W. Moe of July 31, 1923, but only visited it in 1928.[110] There is, however, a Martense Street very near 259 Parkside, so perhaps this is the origin of the name.

  “The Lurking Fear” is more of a detective story than most of his other works, and Lovecraft ably conceals the true state of affairs until at least the third episode. It is only at the conclusion that we learn of the fatal error in reasoning—the belief in only a single monster as the cause of the horror—that led to the deaths of Bennett and Tobey: each were snatched away by different creatures coming from either direction.

  The third episode is perhaps the most significant in terms of Lovecraft’s later work: this historical investigation will be much elaborated in future tales, and reflects the sentiment Lovec
raft expressed in a letter of 1929: “The past is real—it is all there is.”[111] The narrator of “The Lurking Fear” makes a strangely poignant utterance in justifying his investigation of the past: “History, indeed, was all I had after everything else ended in mocking Satanism.” That the heavy hand of the past weighs upon the present and future; that historical study (and, by extension, all scientific enquiry) can somehow help us to come to terms with our fate; that there are facets of the past that are perhaps best left unexplored, but that nevertheless must be explored if we are to understand our place in the world—all these things are perhaps only suggested in “The Lurking Fear,” but they will be treated much more exhaustively in the great tales of his final decade.

  But we read “The Lurking Fear” not for its element of mystery or its historical or philosophical ruminations, but, quite simply, for its flagrantly overblown prose—a prose that so exquisitely treads the thin line between seriousness and parody, between humour and horror, that we scarcely know how to react to it. Throughout the tales of this period Lovecraft is fond of including, toward the end, an hysterical series of stream-of-consciousness ramblings that somehow epitomise the entire work; and he has never done it better than here:

  Shrieking, slithering, torrential shadows of red viscous madness chasing one another through endless, ensanguined corridors of purple fulgorous sky . . . formless phantasms and kaleidoscopic mutations of a ghoulish, remembered scene; forests of monstrous overnourished oaks with serpent roots twisting and sucking unnamable juices from an earth verminous with millions of cannibal devils; mound-like tentacles groping from underground nuclei of polypous perversion . . . insane lightning over malignant ivied walls and daemon arcades choking with fungous vegetation . . .

  Later the narrator piquantly “destroy[s] certain overnourished trees whose very existence seemed an insult to sanity.”

  Presumably at Lovecraft’s request, Clark Ashton Smith was commissioned to illustrate the serial, supplying two illustrations per instalment. They are very curious line drawings. Lovecraft later complained (to others, not to Smith) that Smith had not followed his text very well in the illustrations.[112] Still later Frank Long, probably thinking of these illustrations, pointed out that Smith’s artwork contained systematically sexual implications; Lovecraft pooh-poohed the idea,[113] but Smith was clearly having a not-so-private laugh, for many of the trees and vegetation in the illustrations are obviously in the shape of penises, testicles, and vaginas. Lovecraft quite literally could not conceive of such a thing, and I am convinced this joke never dawned upon him.

  “The Lurking Fear” appeared in Home Brew from January to April 1923. I have not found any evidence that Lovecraft received the $10 he was owed for the last two instalments, but there is also no evidence that he did not. The last issue announces that the magazine will change its name to High Life; Lovecraft later reports that after this change of name the magazine folded in 1924.[114] He was no doubt glad to see the end of the “vile rag.”[115]

  Although it was late in the year and Lovecraft’s sensitivity to cold would not allow him to venture abroad very much, his travels for 1922 were not quite over. In mid-December he visited Boston to participate in a Hub Club meeting with Edith Miniter and others. Afterward he decided to do some solitary antiquarian exploration of some of the towns on the North Shore, specifically Salem. This was either on Sunday the 17th or Monday the 18th.[116] Salem was certainly a delight—it was Lovecraft’s first true experience of the seventeenth century, and he canvassed the Witch House (1642), the House of the Seven Gables, and other celebrated sites—but while there he learnt from natives that there was another town a little farther up the coast called Marblehead that was even quainter. Taking a bus there, Lovecraft was “borne into the most marvellous region I had ever dream’d of, and furnished with the most powerful single aesthetick impression I have receiv’d in years.”[117]

  Marblehead was—and, on the whole, today remains—one of the most charming little backwaters in Massachusetts, full of well-restored colonial houses, crooked and narrow streets, and a spectral hilltop burying-ground from which one can derive a magnificent panoramic view of the city and the nearby harbour. In the old part of town the antiquity is strangely complete, and very little of the modern intrudes there. It was this that so captivated Lovecraft:

  Immemorial pinnacle of fabulous antiquity! As evening came I look’d down at the quiet village where the lights came out one by one; at the calm contemplative chimney-pots and antique gables silhouetted against the west; at the glimmering small-paned windows; at the silent and unillumined fort frowning formidably over the snug harbour where it hath frown’d since 1742, when ’twas put up for defence against the French King’s frigates. Shades of the past! How compleatly, O Mater Novanglia, am I moulded of thy venerable flesh and as one with thy century’d soul![118]

  More than seven years later Lovecraft was still attesting to the poignancy of this vision:

  God! Shall I ever forget my first stupefying glimpse of MARBLEHEAD’S huddled and archaick roofs under the snow in the delirious sunset glory of four p.m., Dec. 17, 1922!!! I did not know until an hour before that I should ever behold such a place as Marblehead, and I did not know until that moment itself the full extent of the wonder I was to behold. I account that instant—about 4:05 to 4:10 p.m., Dec. 17, 1922—the most powerful single emotional climax experienced during my nearly forty years of existence. In a flash all the past of New England—all the past of Old England—all the past of Anglo-Saxondom and the Western World—swept over me and identified me with the stupendous totality of all things in such a way as it never did before and never will again. That was the high tide of my life.[119]

  The most powerful emotional climax he had ever experienced—the high tide of his life: these statements were uttered after his marriage had begun and ended, after his two hellish years in New York and his ecstatic return to Providence, but before his sight of Charleston and Quebec in 1930, which in their way perhaps matched his Marblehead glimpse of 1922. What exactly was it about Marblehead that so struck him? Lovecraft clarifies it himself: with his tremendous imaginative faculty—and with the visible tokens of the present almost totally banished for at least a short interval—Lovecraft felt himself united with his entire cultural and racial past. The past is real—it is all there is; and for a few moments on a winter afternoon in Marblehead the past really was all there was.

  It would take Lovecraft nearly a year—and several more trips to Marblehead—to internalise his impressions and transmute them into fiction; but when he did so, in “The Festival” (1923), he would be well on his way to revivifying Mater Novanglia in some of the most topographically and historically rooted weird fiction ever written. He had begun haltingly to head in this direction, with “The Picture in the House”; but New England was still relatively undiscovered territory to him, and it would take many more excursions for him to imbibe the essence of the area—not merely its antiquities and its history, but its people and their intimate and centuried relations with the soil—and render it fit for fictional use. And it would also take those two years away from New England to make him realise how much he really was moulded of its flesh, so that he could express both the terror and the wonder of this ancient land.

  14. For My Own Amusement

  (1923–1924)

  Amateur activities still loomed large, in spite of the eviction of Lovecraft’s “literary” party in the 1922–23 term. Sonia’s second issue of the Rainbow appeared in May 1922, and as before it was filled with contributions by Lovecraft and his associates. Among them were such things as a long rumination on amateur journalism (“Certain Ideals”) by Edith Miniter, poems by Lilian Middleton and Samuel Loveman (“A Letter to G—— K——,” i.e., George Kirk), James F. Morton’s disquisition “Misconceptions of Art,” the first appearance of Lovecraft’s “Celephaïs,” and several pieces by Sonia. In the lead article (“Amateurdom and the Editor”) she defends the editorial policy of the United Amateur
against the attacks of Leo Fritter and others, although oddly enough she never mentions Lovecraft in the long piece. This may be a sign that Lovecraft co-wrote it, as indeed internal evidence suggests. “Commercialism—The Curse of Art” is an echo of Lovecraft’s own views on the deleterious effects of writing for pay. As before, many photographs of the authors graced the issue, although there is none of Lovecraft this time.

  Another piece, “Heins versus Houtain,” although bearing Sonia’s byline, also seems clearly co-written with Lovecraft, as it contains some of his characteristic mannerisms of style and some of his pet ideas in regard to the proper running of amateurdom. The article is a harsh censure of a feud in the NAPA between the young John Milton Heins and E. Dorothy Houtain; it takes no sides on the feud but criticises its mere existence, saying that its descent into vicious name-calling casts the whole of amateurdom in a bad light. It proposes establishing a “special committee or tribunal” to deal with such disputes and, if necessary, to eject repeat offenders from the world of amateur journalism. This seems very much Lovecraft’s idea, echoing as it does his notion (expressed in “Amateur Journalism: Its Possible Needs and Betterment”) of setting up an informal academy to correct and even censor inferior writing.

 

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