I am providence the life.., p.71

I Am Providence: The Life and Times of H. P. Lovecraft (2 VOLUMES), page 71


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

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  It is one of the many anomalies of Lovecraft’s involvement with Weird Tales that his first published work in the magazine was not a story but a letter. With a certain impishness, Baird printed the bulk of Lovecraft’s cover letter accompanying his five tales; this letter appeared in the September 1923 issue, by which time his tales had been accepted. Baird’s editorial preface to the letter (appearing in the letter column of the magazine, “The Eyrie”) already calls Lovecraft a “master of the weird tale”; here are some extracts from the letter:

  My Dear Sir: Having a habit of writing weird, macabre, and fantastic stories for my own amusement, I have lately been simultaneously hounded by nearly a dozen well-meaning friends into deciding to submit a few of these Gothic horrors to your newly-founded periodical. . . .

  I have no idea that these things will be found suitable, for I pay no attention to the demands of commercial writing. My object is such pleasure as I can obtain from the creation of certain bizarre pictures, situations, or atmospheric effects; and the only reader I hold in mind is myself. . . .

  I like Weird Tales very much, though I have seen only the April number. Most of the stories, of course, are more or less commercial—or should I say conventional?—in technique, but they all have an enjoyable angle. . . .

  No wonder Baird added at the end of this letter: “Despite the foregoing, or because of it, we are using some of Mr. Lovecraft’s unusual stories . . .” One would like to think that the letter was in some senses a self-parody, but it does not appear to be. Highbrow and condescending as it may appear, it quite accurately reflects the aesthetic theory Lovecraft had by this time evolved. The mention of “half-a-dozen well-meaning friends” is interesting: a subsequent letter to Baird, published in the October 1923 issue, notes that “people in Massachusetts, New York, Ohio and California have been equally prompt in calling my attention” to the magazine. The New Yorker is surely Morton, just as the Californian is Smith; the Massachusetts friend is probably W. Paul Cook, and the Ohio friends might have been Alfred Galpin or Samuel Loveman.

  This second letter (published in the same issue that contained “Dagon”) is interesting in that it indicates that Lovecraft was also submitting his weird verse to the magazine. He quotes the opening stanza of “Nemesis” and says that he will one day send it to Weird Tales as a “filler”; Baird, in an editorial note, quotes the “prologue” to “Psychopompos” and declares that he may “some day” print it. The magazine had evidently begun with a “no-poetry” policy, and as early as May 1923 Lovecraft declared[31] that he had convinced Baird to overturn it: the July 1923 issue contained two poems by Clark Ashton Smith, and Lovecraft must have urged both Smith to submit them and Baird to accept them. “Nemesis” did in fact appear in the April 1924 issue, but “Psychopompos” was published only posthumously.

  Lovecraft quickly became a fixture with Weird Tales, appearing in five of the six issues from October 1923 to April 1924 (there was no issue for December 1923). He might even be thought to have appeared in all six, if the publication of Sonia Greene’s “The Horror at Martin’s Beach” (retitled, to Lovecraft’s chagrin, “The Invisible Monster”) in the November 1923 issue can count as one of his appearances. The five tales he had initially submitted took their time appearing, and the last one, “The Cats of Ulthar,” was not published until the February 1926 issue, long after several other tales submitted subsequently had already been printed.

  Lovecraft no doubt found the money he received from the magazine a small but welcome relief from poverty. As he wrote in jest in October 1924: “O cheques, come to papa!”[32] Weird Tales paid upon publication, not (as the better grade of pulps and all the “slicks” did) on acceptance; and judging from the evidence of his early payments, he appears initially to have received much better than the standard 1¢ a word. Later this rate would decline, but Lovecraft would still receive Weird Tales’ “highest” rate of 1½¢ a word.

  Another event of the summer of 1923 that significantly affected Lovecraft’s weird fiction was the discovery of the great Welsh writer Arthur Machen (1863–1947; pronounced MACK-en). As with his discoveries of Ambrose Bierce and Lord Dunsany in 1919, it is a wonder that he had not read him earlier, for Machen’s greatest celebrity had been in the 1890s, and by 1923 he was already regarded (correctly, as it happens) as having done his best work long before. Machen had attained not merely fame but actual notoriety with such works as The Great God Pan and The Inmost Light (1894), The Three Impostors (1895), and The House of Souls (1906), which many believed to be the outpourings of a diseased mind; Machen soberly reprinted some of the bad reviews he had received in the volume Precious Balms (1924). In fact, Machen himself ascribed to the same Victorian sexual pruderies he seemingly flaunted; and the very covert intimations of aberrant sex in such tales as “The Great God Pan” and “The White People” were as horrifying to him as they were to his audience. Temperamentally Machen was not at all similar to Lovecraft: an unwavering Anglo-Catholic, violently hostile to science and materialism, seeking always for some mystical sense of “ecstasy” that might liberate him from what he fancied to be the prosiness of contemporary life, Machen would have found Lovecraft’s mechanistic materialism and atheism repugnant in the extreme. They may have shared a general hostility to the modern age, but they were coming at it from very different directions. Lovecraft would sing Machen’s praises in “Supernatural Horror in Literature,” but in a letter of 1932 he offers a much more probing analysis:

  What Machen probably likes about perverted and forbidden things is their departure from and hostility to the commonplace. To him—whose imagination is not cosmic—they represent what Pegana and the River Yann represent to Dunsany, whose imagination is cosmic. People whose minds are—like Machen’s—steeped in the orthodox myths of religion, naturally find a poignant fascination in the conception of things which religion brands with outlawry and horror. Such people take the artificial and obsolete concept of “sin” seriously, and find it full of dark allurement. On the other hand, people like myself, with a realistic and scientific point of view, see no charm or mystery whatever in things banned by religious mythology. We recognise the primitiveness and meaninglessness of the religious attitude, and in consequence find no element of attractive defiance or significant escape in those things which happen to contravene it. The whole idea of “sin”, with its overtones of unholy fascination, is in 1932 simply a curiosity of intellectual history. The filth and perversion which to Machen’s obsoletely orthodox mind meant profound defiances of the universe’s foundations, mean to us only a rather prosaic and unfortunate species of organic maladjustment—no more frightful, and no more interesting, than a headache, a fit of colic, or an ulcer on the big toe.[33]

  And yet, because Machen so sincerely feels the sense of sin and transgression in those things that “religion brands with outlawry and horror,” he manages to convey his sentiments to the reader in such a way that his work remains powerful and effective. Lovecraft himself came to regard “The White People” as perhaps second to Algernon Blackwood’s “The Willows” as the greatest weird tale of all time; he may well be right.

  Not all Machen’s fiction—let alone the oceans of essays and journalism he wrote over his career—is to be considered horrific, and some of his most successful and artistically finished works are only on the borderline of the weird. The short novel A Fragment of Life (in The House of Souls) is an exquisite probing of the mysteries and wonders of ordinary life, portraying a stolid bourgeois couple in London who feel the call of their ancestry and return to their native Wales. As for The Hill of Dreams (1907), that agonising depiction of the anguish of artistic creation, Lovecraft waxed enthusiastic when he read it:

  And I have read The Hill of Dreams! Surely a masterpiece—though I hope it isn’t quite as autobiographical as some reviewers claim. I’d hate to think of Machen himself as that young neurotic with his sloppy sentimentalities, his couch of thorns, his urban eccentricities, and all that! But Pegana, what an imagination
! Cut out the emotional hysteria, and you have a marvellously appealing character—how vivid is that exquisite Roman day-dreaming! . . . even if the spirit is sadly un-Roman. Machen is a Titan—perhaps the greatest living author—and I must read everything of his.[34]

  Lovecraft’s reaction is typical: the novel is indeed very autobiographical, and it would be impossible to “cut out” all the “emotional hysteria” without disfiguring the work.

  Lovecraft’s reference to the “Roman day-dreaming” in the novel—that great fourth chapter where Lucian Taylor imagines himself back in Roman times with the Second Augustan Legion at Isca Silurum (Caerleon-on-Usk, where Machen himself grew up)—points to one of the bonds he immediately felt with Machen. In later life Lovecraft professed great fascination for Roman Britain—the one point where his Anglophilia and his love of Roman civilisation joined—and it is not surprising that Machen’s own fascination helped to foster this interest.

  Although Lovecraft dutifully read as much of Machen as he could—his quirky treatise on aesthetics, Hieroglyphics: A Note upon Ecstasy in Literature (1902), the curious mainstream novel The Secret Glory (1922), his three delightful autobiographies, Far Off Things (1922), Things Near and Far (1923), and The London Adventure (1924), even such minor works as The Canning Wonder (1926), a nonfiction account of a strange disappearance—it was the horror tales that remained closest to his heart. In particular, a whole series of works—including “The White People,” “The Shining Pyramid,” “Novel of the Black Seal” (a segment of the episodic novel The Three Impostors), and others—make use of the old legends of the “Little People,” a supposedly pre-Aryan race of dwarfish devils who still live covertly in the secret places of the earth and occasionally steal human infants, leaving one of their own behind. Lovecraft would transform this topos into something even more sinister in some of his later tales.

  Lovecraft’s reference to Machen as the “greatest living author” was not a complete exaggeration, at least in terms of Machen’s contemporary reputation. In 1923 Martin Secker issued a nine-volume collected edition of his work; the next year Knopf issued an exquisitely printed limited edition of his prose poems, Ornaments in Jade; the first edition of The Hill of Dreams was fetching enormous sums on the rare book market. Machen certainly was a distinctive figure, and the obscurity that has overtaken his work—partly because of the prejudice against weird fiction that continues to dominate the academic community, and partly because, like so many other writers, Machen wrote too much and in his later years babbled himself out into harmless verbosity—is quite undeserved. He, no less than Oscar Wilde or Walter Pater, helped to make the Yellow Nineties what they were; and although even his best work is marred by prolixity, formlessness, and even a certain self-indulgence, it remains a striking contribution to the literature of its time. On a much lesser scale than Lovecraft, Machen continues to attract a devoted band of followers who use the small press to keep his work alive after a fashion; he is one of those many authors who must suffer the indignity of periodic resurrection.

  Lovecraft seems to have owed the discovery of Machen to Frank Long, as on one occasion he notes rereading “your Machen books.”[35] I cannot detect any Machen influence on Lovecraft’s tales prior to 1926, but the Welshman’s work clearly filtered into Lovecraft’s imagination and eventually emerged in a quite transformed but still perceptible manner in some of his best-known stories.

  Lovecraft had, indeed, not written any stories since “The Lurking Fear” in November 1922; but then, in a matter of two or three months, he wrote three in quick succession—“The Rats in the Walls,” “The Unnamable,” and “The Festival.” All three are of considerable interest, and the first is without question the greatest tale of Lovecraft’s early period.

  The plot of “The Rats in the Walls” is deceptively simple. A Virginian of British ancestry, a man named Delapore (his first name is never given), decides to spend his latter years in refurbishing and occupying his ancestral estate in southern England, Exham Priory, whose foundations go disturbingly far back in time, to a period even before the Roman conquest of the first century A.D. Delapore spares no expense in the restoration, and proudly moves into his estate on July 16, 1923. He has reverted to the ancestral spelling of his name, de la Poer, in spite of the fact that the family has a very unsavoury reputation with the local population—a reputation for murder, kidnapping, witchcraft, and other anomalies extending back to the first Baron Exham in 1261. Associated with the house or the family is the “dramatic epic of the rats—the lean, filthy, ravenous army which had swept all before it and devoured fowl, cats, dogs, hogs, sheep, and even two hapless human beings before its fury was spent.”

  All this seems merely conventional ghostly legendry, and de la Poer pays no attention to it. But shortly after his occupancy of Exham Priory, odd things begin to happen; in particular, he and his several cats seem to detect the scurrying of rats in the walls of the structure, even though such a thing is absurd in light of the centuries-long desertion of the place. The scurrying seems to be descending to the basement of the edifice, and one night de la Poer and his friend, Capt. Edward Norrys, spend a night there to see if they can elucidate the mystery. De la Poer wakes to hear the scurrying of the rats continuing “still downward, far underneath this deepest of sub-cellars,” but Norrys hears nothing. They come upon a trap-door leading to a cavern beneath the basement, and decide to call in scientific specialists to investigate the matter. As they descend into the nighted crypt, they come upon an awesome and horrific sight—an enormous expanse of bones: “Like a foamy sea they stretched, some fallen apart, but others wholly or partly articulated as skeletons; these latter invariably in postures of daemoniac frenzy, either fighting off some menace or clutching some other forms with cannibal intent.” When de la Poer finds that some bones have rings bearing his own coat of arms, he realises the truth—his family has been the leaders of an ancient cannibalistic witch-cult that had its origins in primitive times—and he experiences a spectacular evolutionary reversal: “Curse you, Thornton, I’ll teach you to faint at what my family do! . . . ‘Sblood, thou stinkard, I’ll learn ye how to gust . . . wolde ye swynke me thilke wys? . . . magna Mater! Magna Mater! . . . Atys . . . Dia ad aghaidh ’s ad aodann . . . agus bas dunach ort! Dhonas ’s dholas ort, agus leat-sa! . . . Ungl . . . ungl . . . rrrlh . . . chchch . . .” He is found bending over the half-eaten form of Capt. Norrys.

  It is difficult to convey the richness and cumulative horror of this story in any synopsis; next to The Case of Charles Dexter Ward, it is Lovecraft’s greatest triumph in the old-time “Gothic” vein—although even here the stock Gothic features (the ancient castle with a secret chamber; the ghostly legendry that proves to be founded on fact) have been modernised and refined so as to be chillingly convincing. And the fundamental premise of the story—that a human being can suddenly reverse the course of evolution—could only have been written by one who had accepted the Darwinian theory.

  “The Rats in the Walls” must have been written in late August or early September, for Lovecraft announced its completion in a letter of September 4.[36] It is notable for being both one of the most historically rich and one of the most contemporary stories he had written to date. The very first sentence (“On July 16, 1923, I moved into Exham Priory . . .”) boldly places us in the modern world, unlike the Poe-esque nebulosity of “The Hound” (“On the night of September 24, 19—”), the 1896 setting of “The Picture in the House,” or the unspecified chronology of “The Outsider,” “The Nameless City,” and others. This contemporaneousness will become a hallmark of Lovecraft’s later work, creating an immediacy of effect that must have augmented the horror for his earliest readers. At the same time, this tale reaches farther back into the historic and prehistoric past than any other previous tale except “Dagon” and perhaps “The Temple”: by an obvious but nonetheless effective symbolism, the narrator’s descent into the successive layers of his cellar point to his descent into increasingly remote layers of

  Lovecraft the Anglophile captures the English setting of the tale with notable felicity, although with some puzzling errors. The town nearest to Exham Priory is given as Anchester, but there is no such town in England. Lovecraft must have been thinking either of Ancaster in Lincolshire or (more likely) Alchester in the southern county of Oxfordshire. Perhaps this is a deliberate alteration; but then, what do we make of the statement that “Anchester had been the camp of the Third Augustan Legion”? Neither Alchester nor Ancaster were the sites of legionary fortresses in Roman Britain; what is more, the Third Augustan Legion was never in England at all, and it was the Second Augustan Legion that was stationed at Isca Silurum (Caerleon-on-Usk) in what is now Wales. This is a strange error for Lovecraft to have made, and he repeats it in the fragment “The Descendant” (1927?). Even if this is a deliberate change, it is too clearly at variance with the known facts to be plausible.

  Certain surface features of the tale—and perhaps one essential kernel of the plot—were taken from other works. As Steven J. Mariconda has pointed out,[37] Lovecraft’s account of the “epic of the rats” appears to be derived from a chapter in S. Baring-Gould’s Curious Myths of the Middle Ages (1869), of which Lovecraft speaks highly in “Supernatural Horror in Literature” and which he had probably read by this time. The Gaelic portions of de la Poer’s concluding cries were lifted directly from Fiona Macleod’s “The Sin-Eater,” which Lovecraft read in Joseph Lewis French’s anthology, Best Psychic Stories (1920).

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