I Am Providence: The Life and Times of H. P. Lovecraft (2 VOLUMES), page 72
More significantly, the very idea of atavism or reversion to type seems to have been derived from a story by Irvin S. Cobb, “The Unbroken Chain,” published in Cosmopolitan for September 1923 (the issue, as is still customary with many magazines, was probably on the stands at least a month before its cover date) and later collected in Cobb’s collection On an Island That Cost $24.00 (1926). Lovecraft admitted that Long gave him the magazine appearance of this story in 1923, and he alluded to it without citing its title in “Supernatural Horror in Literature.” This tale deals with a Frenchman who has a small proportion of negroid blood from a slave brought to America in 1819. When he is run down by a train, he cries out in an African language—“Niama tumba!”—the words that his black ancestor shouted when he was attacked by a rhinoceros in Africa. The whole story, aside from being vilely racist, telegraphs its punch long before the end; but the sudden atavistic cry may have fired Lovecraft’s imagination. It is, I suppose, to Lovecraft’s credit that he has eliminated any racist overtones in his version. In an early passage in Cobb’s story, a character ruminates on the general conception:
“. . . the fear that some day, somehow, somewhere, some word from him, some involuntary spasmodic act of his, some throw-back manifestation of motive or thought that’s been hiding in his breed for generation after generation, will betray his secret and utterly undo him. Call it by what scientific jargon or popular term you please—hereditary instinct, reversion to type, transmitted impulse, dormant primitivism, elemental recurrence—still the haunting dread of it must be walking with him in every waking minute.”
But it has to be admitted that Lovecraft has vastly enriched and subtilised the idea.
“The Rats in the Walls” is, technically, the first story Lovecraft wrote as a professional writer, for by this time his first tales had been accepted, though not published, in Weird Tales. It is, of course, a very different thing to say that Lovecraft somehow consciously wrote this story with a professional market in mind: I find no evidence of this. It is true that he did not submit this tale to an amateur journal; it is also true that he submitted the tale first, not to Weird Tales, but to the Argosy All-Story Weekly, a Munsey magazine whose managing editor, Robert H. Davis, rejected it as being (in Lovecraft’s words) “too horrible for the tender sensibilities of a delicately nurtured publick.” Davis was, of course, the longtime editor of the All-Story during its entire run as a separate magazine (1905–20); when it was merged with the Argosy in 1920, he was forced to yield to Matthew White, Jr., who had edited the Argosy since 1886. Davis left the Munsey organisation and founded his own literary agency, but it did not do well; around 1922 he returned to Munsey as managing editor under White. The Argosy All-Story may or may not have paid better than Weird Tales (it paid A. Merritt only 1¢ a word for The Metal Monster in 1920), but it clearly had a wider circulation and greater prestige; but when “The Rats in the Walls” was rejected, Lovecraft immediately sent it to Baird, who accepted it and ran it in the March 1924 issue. All this does not mean, however, that Lovecraft was suddenly becoming (as he later derisively termed it) a “pulp-hound” who sought acceptance in the pulps as a vindication of his self-worth.
In a late letter Lovecraft stated a little curiously that “The Rats in the Walls” was “suggested by a very commonplace incident—the cracking of wall-paper late at night, and the chain of imaginings resulting from it.” This is curious because this specific image does not in fact occur in the story. Lovecraft has recorded the kernel of the idea in his commonplace book: “Wall paper cracks off in sinister shape—man dies of fright” (entry 107). And yet, an earlier entry (79) is also suggestive: “Horrible secret in crypt of ancient castle—discovered by dweller.” (This latter entry was probably inspired by Bram Stoker’s final novel, The Lair of the White Worm , which Lovecraft read around this time.) The story may then be a fusion of images and conceptions that had been percolating in his mind for years.
“The Rats in the Walls,” the longest of Lovecraft’s tales by far to date (aside from the episodic “Herbert West—Reanimator” and “The Lurking Fear”), is similarly the broadest in scope and the most meticulously written. It is, in one sense, the pinnacle of his work in the Gothic/Poe-esque vein (it is, in effect, his “Fall of the House of Usher”), but in another sense it is very much a work of his own in its adumbration of such central themes as the influence of the past upon the present, the fragility of human reason, the baleful call of ancestry, and the ever-present threat of a reversion to primitive barbarism. It represents an exponential leap in quality from his past work, and he would produce nothing so good until “The Call of Cthulhu” in 1926.
“The Unnamable” and “The Festival,” Lovecraft’s two other original stories of 1923, return to New England in their different ways. The former is slight, but could be thought of as a sort of veiled justification for the type of weird tale Lovecraft was evolving; much of it reads like a treatise on aesthetics. It has gone relatively unnoticed that “The Unnamable” is the second story to involve Randolph Carter, even though he is referred to only once as “Carter.” Still more unnoticed is the fact that this Carter is very different in temperament from that of “The Statement of Randolph Carter,” as the Carters in the three later tales involving him will be as well; so that the blithe assumption that Carter is simply a stand-in for Lovecraft must be severely qualified or, at any rate, be examined with care.
The tale takes place in an “old burying ground” in Arkham, where Carter and his friend Joel Manton (clearly based upon Maurice W. Moe) are discussing the horror tales that Carter has written. Through Manton, Lovecraft satirises the stolid bourgeois objections to the weird—as contrary to probability; as not based on “realism”; as extravagant and unrelated to life—that he himself no doubt received on many occasions in the amateur press; he did so in the Transatlantic Circulator of 1921, leading to the first coherent enunciation of his theory of the weird in the In Defence of Dagon papers. The narrator paraphrases Manton’s views: “It was his view that only our normal, objective experiences possess any aesthetic significance, and that it is the province of the artist not so much to rouse strong emotion by action, ecstasy, and astonishment, as to maintain a placid interest and appreciation by accurate, detailed transcripts of every-day affairs.” This, and the rest of the passage, testify to Lovecraft’s absorption of Decadent aesthetics and his revulsion from Victorian standards of mundane realism. The mention of “ecstasy” may reflect his reading, around this time, of Machen’s Hieroglyphics: A Note upon Ecstasy in Literature (1902), which Lovecraft, although not accepting it in its entirety, found stimulating in its championing of literature that frees itself from the commonplace. Manton’s objection to supernaturalism in literature, in spite of the fact that he “believ[es] in the supernatural much more fully than I,” is a snide reference to Moe’s theism: anyone who believes in an omnipotent God and in the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead can scarcely object to the depiction of the supernatural in fiction! The rest of the story—in which Manton scoffs at the very idea of something being termed “unnamable” but later encounters just such an entity in the burying ground—does not require much comment.
Aside from its interesting aesthetic reflexions, “The Unnamable” fosters that sense of the lurking horror of New England history and topography which we have already seen in “The Picture in the House,” and which would become a dominant topos in Lovecraft’s later work. The tale is set in Arkham, but the actual inspiration for the setting—a “dilapidated seventeenth-century tomb” and, nearby, a “giant willow in the centre of the cemetery, whose trunk has nearly engulfed an ancient, illegible slab”—is the Charter Street Burying Ground in Salem, where just such a tree-engulfed slab can be found. Later in the story Lovecraft records various “old-wives’ superstitions,” some of which are taken from Cotton Mather’s Magnalia Christi Americana (1702), of which he owned an ancestral first edition. As in “The Picture in the House,” Lovecraft’
One of those glimpses is presented in “The Festival” (written probably in October), which for the sustained modulation of its prose can be considered a virtual 3000-word prose-poem. Although it is only in this tale that the mythical town of Kingsport (first cited in “The Terrible Old Man”) is definitively identified with Marblehead, Lovecraft makes it clear that the seventeenth-century past is not in fact the true source of horror in the tale; in rhythmical, alliterative prose he suggests a horror of much older lineage: “It was the Yuletide, that men call Christmas though they know in their hearts it is older than Bethlehem and Babylon, older than Memphis and mankind.” The Christian holiday is a mere veneer for a much older festival that reaches back to the agricultural rhythms of primitive man—the winter solstice, whose passing foretells the eventual reawakening of the earth in spring.
The narrator follows a course along the old town that can be traversed to this day. He passes by the old cemetery on the hill, where (in a literal borrowing from his letter of nearly a year previous) “black gravestones stuck ghoulishly through the snow like the decayed fingernails of a gigantic corpse,” and makes his way to a house with an overhanging second story (a house clearly identifiable in the central square of Marblehead). There he encounters the past embodied in both furnishings and inhabitants:
He beckoned me into a low, candle-lit room with massive exposed rafters and dark, stiff, sparse furniture of the seventeenth century. The past was vivid there, for not an attribute was missing. There was a cavernous fireplace and a spinning-wheel at which a bent old woman in loose wrapper and deep poke-bonnet sat back toward me, silently spinning despite the festive season.
For Lovecraft, the eighteenth-century rationalist, the seventeenth century in Massachusetts—dominated by the Puritans’ rigid religion, bereft of the sprightliness of the Augustan wits, and culminating in the psychotic horror of the Salem witchcraft trials—represented an American “Dark Age” fully as horrifying as the early mediaeval period in Europe he so despised. Religion—seen by Lovecraft as the overwhelming of the intellect by emotion, childish wish-fulfilment, and millennia of pernicious brainwashing—proves to be the source of terror in “The Festival,” whose culminating scene occurs in an old church in Marblehead (probably—as Donovan K. Loucks has ascertained—one of two churches no longer extant: the First Meeting House, built in 1648 on Old Burial Hill, or the Second Congregational Church, built in 1715 at 28 Mugford Street). But Lovecraft sees this Christian edifice as a mere façade for rituals of much older provenance; and when the band of townspeople descend robotically down a “trap-door of the vaults which yawned loathsomely open just before the pulpit,” we can see both a relationship to “The Rats in the Walls” (where also a physical descent symbolises a descent into the archaic past) and an indication of the superficiality of Christianity’s formalisation of primitive festivals from the depths of prehistory.
The conclusion of “The Festival”—marred by the luridness of grotesque winged creatures who carry off each of the celebrants on their backs—is not commensurate with its mesmeric opening and middle sections; but its evocation of the centuried past, in prose as fluid, restrained, and throbbingly vital as Lovecraft ever wrote, will always give this tale a high place among his lesser works.
It seems odd that Lovecraft required almost a year and at least four or five trips to Marblehead after his first visit of December 1922 to write the tale; but we will find that he frequently needed lengthy periods of reflection before topographical or other impressions settled sufficiently in his mind to emerge in the form of weird fiction. There is a literary (or scientific) influence as well. In 1933 Lovecraft stated in reference to the tale: “In intimating an alien race I had in mind the survival of some clan of pre-Aryan sorcerers who preserved primitive rites like those of the witch-cult—I had just been reading Miss Murray’s The Witch-Cult in Western Europe.” This landmark work of anthropology by Margaret A. Murray, published in 1921, made the claim (now regarded by modern scholars as highly dubious) that the witch-cult in both Europe and America had its origin in a pre-Aryan race that was driven underground but continued to lurk in the hidden corners of the earth. Lovecraft—having just read a very similar fictional exposition of the idea in Machen’s stories of the “Little People”—was much taken with this conception and would allude to it in many subsequent references to the Salem witches in his tales; as late as 1930 he was presenting the theory seriously:
Another and highly important factor in accounting for Massachusetts witch-belief and daemonology is the fact, now widely emphasised by anthropologists, that the traditional features of witch-practice and Sabbat-orgies were by no means mythical. . . . Something actual was going on under the surface, so that people really stumbled on concrete experiences from time to time which confirmed all they had ever heard of the witch species. . . . Miss Murray, the anthropologist, believes that the witch-cult actually established a “coven” (its only one in the New World) in the Salem region about 1690 . . . For my part—I doubt if a compact coven existed, but certainly think that people had come to Salem who had a direct personal knowledge of the cult, and who were perhaps initiated members of it. I think that some of the rites and formulae of the cult must have been talked about secretly among certain elements, and perhaps furtively practiced by the few degenerates involved. . . . Most of the people hanged were probably innocent, yet I do think there was a concrete, sordid background not present in any other New England witchcraft case.
Lovecraft will not find many today who will agree with him on this point. I think that his enthusiastic response to Murray is one of those relatively few instances where his longing for some bizarre theory to be true convinced him that it actually was true. In this case the theory so perfectly meshed with some of his own literary tropes that he found it compelling in fact: he had conceived the notion of “alien” (i.e., non-human or not entirely human) races lurking on the underside of civilisation as early as “Dagon” and “The Temple,” although the prime philosophical motivation had been the diminution of human self-importance and a refutation of the idea that we are the clear “rulers” of the planet; then he found it in an author (Machen) whose work he perhaps saw as a striking anticipation of his own; so that when a respected scholar actually propounded a theory that approximately echoed this trope, he naturally embraced it. Lovecraft makes the connexion explicit in a letter of 1924: “In this book the problem of witchcraft superstition is attacked from an entirely new angle—wherein the explanation of delusion and hysteria is discarded in favour of an hypothesis almost exactly like . . . the one used by Arthur Machen in fiction . . .” It is also a fact that Murray’s book was received as a significant work of anthropology, although many early reviewers disagreed with her conclusions; one critic, Robert Lynd (a literary man, not an anthropologist), wrote piquantly: “Miss Murray is to be congratulated on having produced a fascinating guide to the practices of witchcraft. Her book should be invaluable to romantic novelists.” Lovecraft cannot be blamed if her views were only later overturned or, at the very least, regarded as highly implausible.
Meanwhile Lovecraft had actually met a writer of weird fiction in his own hometown—Clifford Martin Eddy, Jr (1896–1967), who with his wife Muriel became fairly close to Lovecraft in the year or two preceding his marriage. The Eddys were at that time residents of East Providence, across the Seekonk River, and after an initial round of correspondence and a few telephone calls, Lovecraft walked three miles to visit them at their home on Second Street in August 1923.
But how did Lovecraft come into contact with the Eddys at all? There is some doubt on the matter. Muriel Eddy wrote two significant memoirs of Lovecraft, one published in 1945, the o
Lovecraft does not, to my knowledge, mention the Eddys in correspondence prior to October 1923, at which time he refers to Eddy as “the new Providence amateur.” He certainly gives no indication that he had once been in touch with the Eddys and was only now reestablishing contact. My feeling, then, is that the whole story about Susie Lovecraft and Grace Eddy—and about the Eddys’ early association with Lovecraft—is a fabrication, made by Muriel so as to augment the sense of her and her husband’s importance in Lovecraft’s life. Muriel went on to write several more self-published pamphlets about her relations with Lovecraft, and it seems to me that she was attempting to capitalise on Lovecraft’s growing renown. The “facts” that she tells about Susie Lovecraft in her 1961 memoir could all have been gleaned from others’ writings—notably Winfield Townley Scott’s “His Own Most Fantastic Creation” (1944). There is no mention at all of Susie or any involvement with her in Muriel’s 1945 memoir. Accordingly, I see no reason to believe that Lovecraft was in any way familiar with the Eddys prior to the summer of 1923.
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- Black Wings of Cthulhu 6Black Wings of Cthulhu (Volume Six)Black Wings of Cthulhu, Volume 3I Am Providence: The Life and Times of H. P. Lovecraft (2 VOLUMES)Black Wings of CthulhuBlack Wings of Cthulhu, Volume 4Black Wings of Cthulhu, Volume 5
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