I am providence the life.., p.70

I Am Providence: The Life and Times of H. P. Lovecraft (2 VOLUMES), page 70


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

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  We know more about Lovecraft’s third trip. He first went to Boston on Thursday, April 12, for his now customary attendance of a Hub Club meeting; he spent the night at the residence jointly occupied by Charles A. A. Parker and Edith Miniter at 30 Waite Street in Malden (a suburb of Boston), being regaled by a tiny six-week-old kitten named Victory who crawled all over him and finally went to sleep on the back of his neck. The next day he proceeded to Salem, then continued on to Danvers—the town, once called Salem-Village, founded in 1636 by some members of the original settlement of 1626, and where the 1692 witch trials had taken place. Spotting an ancient brick residence—the Samuel Fowler house (1809)—that was open as a museum, Lovecraft got off the trolley, went up to the house, and knocked on the door. Let him tell the rest:

  My summons was answer’d simultaneously by two of the most pitiful and decrepit-looking persons imaginable—hideous old women more sinister than the witches of 1692, and certainly not under eighty. . . . The “ell” in which they dwelt was in a state of indescribable squalor; with heaps of rags, books, cooking utensils, and the like on every hand. One meagre wood stove fail’d altogether to heat the barren room against the cold of that sharp afternoon.

  Lovecraft goes on to tell how one of the women spoke to him—“in a hoarse rattling voice that dimly suggested death,” but expressing “a courtly and aristocratick welcome in language an accents beyond question bespeaking the gentlest birth and proudest cultivation!” Lovecraft explored the place thoroughly, finding it well preserved—it had been purchased from the women by the Society for the Preservation of New England Antiquities, which was allowing them to reside in the place until their deaths—but in the end it was the occupants, not the house, that most struck him: “Yes—it was the old, old New-England story of family decay and aristocratick pauperism . . .”[15] One wonders whether Lovecraft—who had already written about a roughly analogous phenomenon in “The Picture in the House” (1920)—reflected on the parallel between the Fowlers and his own line. The Phillipses were never aristocrats in the proper sense, but their decline was no less precipitous than that of these decrepit crones.

  Lovecraft then proceeded out into the countryside, seeking the farmhouse built by Townsend Bishop in 1636—the place occupied by Rebekah Nurse in 1692 when she was accused of witchcraft by the slave woman Tituba and, at the age of seventy, hanged on Gallows Hill. He found both the farmhouse and Rebekah Nurse’s grave some distance away. Unlike the Fowler place, the farmhouse was of a cramped seventeenth-century design with low rooms and massive wooden beams; it made him think of the fundamental difference between his beloved Augustan age and the period immediately preceding it: “to my imagination the 17th century is as full of macabre mystery, repression, & ghoulish adumbrations as the 18th is full of taste, gayety, grace, & beauty.”[16] He was allowed by the caretaker of the farmhouse to climb all the way up into the attic:

  Thick dust covered everything, & unnatural shapes loomed on every hand as the evening twilight oozed through the little bleared panes of the ancient windows. I saw something hanging from the wormy ridge-pole—something that swayed as if in unison with the vesper breeze outside, though that breeze had no access to this funereal & forgotten place—shadows . . . shadows . . . shadows . . .[17]

  Returning that evening to the Parker-Miniter abode, Lovecraft set out the next day (Saturday the 14th) for Merrimac, where his young amateur friend Edgar J. Davis (age fifteen) lived. (Davis would become president of the UAPA during its death-throes in 1925–26.) The two of them visited graveyards in nearby Amesbury (where Whittier lived), and the next day they headed for Newburyport. This coastal town has now been made into a yuppie resort, but in 1923 it was a quiet little backwater that preserved its antiquities in almost as complete a state as Marblehead. So little life did the town have that Lovecraft and Davis rode the trolley car all the way through it without realising that they had passed through the centre of town, which was their destination. Returning on foot to the central square, Lovecraft and Davis revelled in the atmosphere of the past of a once-thriving colonial seaport. They returned to the Davis residence that evening, and on Monday the 16th Lovecraft began the leisurely trip home, passing through Boston and reaching 598 around midnight.

  In early June Lovecraft was planning a trip with Edward H. Cole to Concord and Lexington—“those harbours of Yankee sedition”[18]—but I am not certain whether this visit actually occurred. Later that month he went again to Marblehead. Entering one of the mansions open to visitors, he learned from the occupants that he had on his previous visits not even seen the best (i.e., the oldest and best-preserved) parts of the town, and he promptly took steps to remedy the oversight. Once more he took a late train back to Providence, returning at 2 A.M.

  Another visit to Boston and a Hub Club meeting followed on July 3–4. This may have been a sort of informal regional NAPA convention for all those amateurs who could not attend the official gathering in Cleveland. On the second day the amateurs took in the Fourth of July celebrations at Boston Common, but when it was time to sing the “Star-Spangled Banner,” Lovecraft sang the “correct” words—the drinking-song “To Anacreon in Heaven,” the tune upon which Francis Scott Key based his ditty.

  Sonia paid Lovecraft a call in Providence on July 15–17. This is the first we hear of the two meeting since Lovecraft’s visit to New York the preceding September (although he could have seen Sonia when he returned to the metropolis in November for discussions anent the NAPA presidency), but Sonia makes clear that in the two years preceding their marriage in March 1924 they engaged in “almost daily correspondence—H. P. writing me about everything he did and everywhere he went, introducing names of friends and his evaluation of them, sometimes filling 30, 40 and even 50 pages of finely written script.”[19] What a shame that Sonia felt the need to burn all these letters! The visit in July was a joint business-pleasure trip on her part: on Monday the 16th Lovecraft showed Sonia the customary antiquities of Providence; then, on Tuesday the 17th, the two of them went to the coastal town of Narragansett Pier, in the southern part of the state overlooking the ocean, passing through Apponaug, East Greenwich, and Kingston along the way. On the return trip Sonia continued on to Boston while Lovecraft went home.

  On August 10 occurred no less momentous an event than Lovecraft’s first personal visit with his longtime friend Maurice W. Moe, who was making a tour of the East. Lovecraft met him at the Providence YMCA that morning, showing him all the local sites before boarding a bus to Boston, where they would meet Cole, Sandusky, and Moe’s wife and two children, Robert (age eleven) and Donald (age nine). The next day Lovecraft performed his customary tour-guide act, as Cole relates in a memoir:

  I recall vividly the Saturday afternoon . . . when Lovecraft, Maurice Moe, Albert Sandusky, and I went to Old Marblehead to visit the numerous Colonial houses and other places of interest with which Howard was thoroughly familiar. He was so insistent that our friend from the West should not miss a single relic or point of view over lovely town and harbor that he walked us relentlessly for miles, impelled solely by his inexhaustible enthusiasm until our bodies rebelled and, against his protests, we dragged ourselves to the train. Lovecraft was still buoyant.[20]

  Lovecraft himself tells the story still more piquantly: “I walked my associates so far that they rebelled—all lining up on a stone wall & refusing to budge an inch more except in a return direction!”[21] So much for the sickly recluse of a decade before! It is clear that Lovecraft functioned largely on nervous energy: he frequently admitted that he had no intrinsic interest in walking or other forms of exercise, but would undertake them only for some other purpose—in this case, the absorption of antiquity and, perhaps, the force-feeding of antiquity upon Moe, since just before his visit Moe had confessed that ancient things did not much attract him. This caused Lovecraft to unearth a withering contrast between the East and the West:

  For mine own Part, I do not see how any Man of acute Sensibilities can dwell in a new Town where
there is nothing mellow & traditionally Beautiful. The West, Sir, is abominably crude & garish; because it rose up too quickly to possess any slow natural Growth, & because its Rise was in an Aera when nothing beautiful was created. Moreover, even its recent Adornments are of a blowsy mechanical kind, design’d at wholesale by some weary Hack who hath made plans for countless other Places, & who never expects to live in Sight of his Work. . . . Your Western towns, Sir, are as alike as Peas; so that any two of ’em cou’d be exchang’d without their Inhabitants being Sensible of the Fact.[22]

  All this, of course, was based upon Lovecraft’s one trip to Cleveland; but I think his point—when satiric exaggeration is taken into account—is still sound; at least, he felt it to be so for himself.

  On Monday the 13th Lovecraft reluctantly bade Moe adieu as he put him on the New York bus. He did not know that another thirteen years would pass before he would meet him again; and in later years he expressed chagrin at the mental picture Moe must have carried of him, since at the time Lovecraft was rather portly. Clearly he was being well fed at home—perhaps for the last time. His later economies in diet—both during his New York period and during his last ten years in Providence—are painful to note.

  On Tuesday the 14th Lovecraft went on a solitary tour of Portsmouth, New Hampshire, yet another colonial haven he had never seen; he was entirely captivated, for, unlike Marblehead and Newburyport, Portsmouth was a thriving and flourishing city that had nonetheless managed to keep its antiquities intact. Lovecraft found himself “merg’d for the first time in the living whirl of the real eighteenth century”: “For Portsmouth is the one city which hath kept its own life and people as well as its houses and streets. There are scarce any inhabitants but the old families, and scarce any industries but the old ship-building and the navy yard which hath been there since 1800.”[23] Much as Lovecraft found architectural antiquity charming, what most affected him social continuity from the past. Physical structures were not enough; it was when those structures were still used for their original purposes that he was most enthralled, perhaps again because it represented for him the sense of time-defiance that was so central to his imagination. Inevitably, there is a tinge of racism here: he makes particular note of the “pure ENGLISH faces” he sees in Portsmouth, and when he notes that “the Colonial age still liv’d untainted” there, one can scarcely resist the suggestion that that final word meant nothing more than the absence of foreigners.

  Travels were by no means over, for in September James F. Morton stopped by for several days. Naturally, Lovecraft took him to Marblehead, remarking in a postcard on September 15: “. . . this time I have a sage companion whom I can’t fatigue!”[24] Evidently his being dragged away from the place during Moe’s visit still rankled. We do not know much else about Morton’s visit, but on Wednesday the 19th the two of them made an expedition to Chepachet, a sleepy little village in the northwestern part of Rhode Island. From there they took the Putnam Pike (now Route 44) in an attempt to reach Durfee Hill, but Morton took a wrong turn and they went astray. They went instead to the nearby town of Pascoag, which Lovecraft found delightful: “The scene is magical—it is the early, half-forgotten, beautiful simple America that Poe and Hawthorne knew—a village with narrow winding streets and Colonial facades, and a sleepy square where merchants sit in their doorways.”[25] They returned by train to Providence and went to the ancient wharves where Morton was to catch a boat to take him back to New York. After Morton left, Lovecraft went home and slept for twenty-one hours continuously; later rests of eleven, thirteen, and twelve hours show how much the exertion of the Chepachet expedition, and perhaps of Morton’s trip generally, had told upon him. This would be a recurring pattern in Lovecraft’s travels—intense activity for several days, followed by collapse. But to someone who, largely for monetary reasons, needed to squeeze as much as he could out of a trip, it was a price well worth paying.

  Although he was scarcely aware of it at the time, the summer of 1923 brought a radical change in Lovecraft’s literary career—perhaps as radical as his discovery of amateur journalism nine years previously. Whether the change was all for the good is a matter we shall have to consider at a later stage. In March of 1923 the first issue of Weird Tales appeared, and a month or two later Lovecraft was urged—initially by Everett McNeil[26] and Morton,[27] but probably by Clark Ashton Smith and others as well—to submit to it.

  Weird Tales was the brainchild of Jacob Clark Henneberger, who with J. M. Lansinger founded Rural Publications, Inc., in 1922 to publish a variety of popular magazines. Henneberger had already achieved great success with the magazine College Humor, and he now envisioned founding a line of varied periodicals in the detective and horror field. In spite of the fairly significant amount of space given to weird and science fiction in the Munsey magazines (especially Argosy, All-Story, and Cavalier), there had never before been a magazine solely devoted to the weird. Henneberger had received assurances from such established writers as Hamlin Garland and Ben Hecht that they would be willing to contribute stories of the “unconventional” which they could not land in the “slicks” or other magazines, but they failed to come through when the magazine was actually launched.[28] As later events will show, Henneberger founded Weird Tales not out of some altruistic goal of fostering artistic weird literature but largely in order to make money by featuring big-name writers; and when this did not happen, he was quick to free himself of his creation. Weird Tales never made any significant amount of money, and on several occasions—especially during the depression—it came close to folding; but somehow it managed to hang on for thirty-one years and 279 issues, an unprecedented run for a pulp magazine.

  Henneberger selected Edwin Baird (1886–1957) as editor, with assistance from Farnsworth Wright and Otis Adelbert Kline. Lovecraft no doubt read Baird’s short novel “The Heart of Virginia Keep” in the Argosy for April 1915, although as it was not a weird tale he probably did not take much notice of it. Baird, indeed, did not appear to have any great sensitivity to the weird. The first several issues—which varied in dimensions from 6 × 9 to an ungainly “bedsheet” size (8½ × 11), all with very crude and amateurish covers—are a decidedly mixed bag: the March 1923 issue featured a striking novelette, “Ooze” by Anthony M. Rud, which Lovecraft enjoyed, but otherwise contained a rag-tag farrago of crude and outlandish stories largely written by beginning writers; subsequent issues are similar, every now and then containing some fairly distinguished work amidst a mass of rubbish. Few established writers, even from the pulp field, appeared in these early issues: Harold Ward, Vincent Starrett, Don Mark Lemon, and Francis Stevens (the latter two of whom had distinguished themselves in the Munseys) are the only recognisable names; and throughout its run Weird Tales was much more congenial to new writers than other pulps, a policy that had both advantages and drawbacks. In the May 1923 issue it began its long-running policy of reprinting weird “classics,” in this case Bulwer-Lytton’s “The Haunted and the Haunters”; as a result, some fairly rare weird fiction was indeed brought back into print, although valuable space was frequently occupied by very well-known and easily available works (the June 1923 issue contained Poe’s “The Murders in the Rue Morgue,” and years later the entirety of Frankenstein was serialised), and the magazine unconsciously lapsed into arrogance by reprinting “classic” tales from its own earlier issues.

  Lovecraft, who may or may not have still been reading some of the Munseys at this time, no doubt read those early issues of Weird Tales, finding some of the tales quite powerful. Indeed, even if Morton and others had not advised him to submit to Weird Tales, he might eventually have done so on his own; for he was clearly making efforts—naive and clumsy as they may have been—to break into professional print on a somewhat higher grade than Home Brew. As early as late 1919, at the urging of one of his aunts, he submitted “The Tomb” to the Black Cat;[29] at some later date he submitted “Dagon” to Black Mask. Both stories were rejected.[30] This was perhaps not the wisest choice i
n either instance. Although Lovecraft read some of the early issues of Black Cat around the turn of the century, the magazine was not primarily devoted to weird fiction and published, proportionately, much less of it than the Munseys. As for Black Mask, it was initially founded as an all-purpose fiction magazine: its first issue (April 1920) featured the subtitle “An Illustrated Magazine of Detective, Mystery, Adventure, Romance, and Spiritualism.” But it was just at this time that the earliest stories by Carroll John Daly and Dashiell Hammett were appearing in it, and under the editorship of Joseph T. Shaw, who took over in November 1926, Black Mask would by the end of the decade become the nurturing ground for the hard-boiled school of detective fiction. The occasional ghost story did appear, but such an excursion into archaic, Poe-esque horror as “The Tomb” was not likely to find a home there.

  What is more, when Lovecraft did submit to Weird Tales, he sent five tales simultaneously—“Dagon,” “Arthur Jermyn,” “The Cats of Ulthar,” “The Hound,” and “The Statement of Randolph Carter”—along with a cover letter that took pains to point out the rejection of “Dagon” by Black Cat. Baird replied to Lovecraft in a personal letter, saying that he would consider accepting these tales if they were typed double-spaced. Lovecraft, used to the relatively informal policies of the amateur journals and probably wanting to save paper, had typed them single spaced (these typescripts still survive in the John Hay Library). For one whose loathing of the typewriter would in later years reach epic proportions, the prospect of having to undergo such a labour for what he believed to be a not entirely certain assurance of acceptance was formidable; but he finally typed “Dagon,” which was accepted, as were the other four.

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