I am providence the life.., p.78

I Am Providence: The Life and Times of H. P. Lovecraft (2 VOLUMES), page 78


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

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  But the months preceding and following the marriage were sufficiently hectic that neither had much time for reflexion. In the first place, Lovecraft had to finish the ghostwriting job for Weird Tales. The magazine was not doing well on the newsstands, and in an effort to bolster sales owner J. C. Henneberger enlisted the services of the escape artist Harry Houdini (born Erich Weiss, 1874–1926), then at the height of his popularity, to write a column and other items. “Ask Houdini” appeared in three issues beginning in March 1924, while two works of fiction—“The Spirit Fakers of Hermannstadt” (March, April, and May–June–July 1924) and “The Hoax of the Spirit Lover” (April 1924)—were also published. These latter two were ghostwritten by unknown hands, possibly Walter B. Gibson, the prolific pulp writer and editor (later to be known as the creator of The Shadow). (Some have conjectured C. M. Eddy, Jr, as the ghostwriter, but it does not appear as if Eddy was acquainted with Houdini at this time; Lovecraft himself notes in late September 1924 that he himself had given Eddy a letter of introduction to Houdini only a short time earlier.[20] Lovecraft believed that Farnsworth Wright ghostwrote the Houdini tales.[21]) Now Henneberger enlisted Lovecraft—who had to be regarded as one of the leading lights of the magazine in its first year—to write up a strange tale that Houdini was attempting to pass off as an actual occurrence. Lovecraft relates the account—involving Houdini’s being kidnapped on a pleasure trip to Egypt, thrown bound and gagged down a deep aperture in Campbell’s Tomb, and left to find his way out of the labyrinthine pyramid—in a letter to Long in mid-February, saying that the work would appear as “By Houdini and H. P. Lovecraft.”[22] Shortly thereafter Lovecraft discovered that this account was entirely fictitious, so he persuaded Henneberger to let him have as much imaginative leeway as he could in writing up the story. By February 25 he had not yet begun to write the tale, even though it was due on March 1. Somehow he managed to finish it just shortly before he boarded the train to New York on March 2; but in his rush he left the typescript behind somewhere in Union Station in Providence. Harriedly he took out an advertisement that appeared the next day in the lost and found column of the Providence Journal:

  MANUSCRIPT—Lost, title of story, “Under the Pyramids,” Sunday afternoon, in or about Union station. Finder please send to H. P. Lovecraft, 259 Parkside Ave., Brooklyn, N.Y.

  Although the tale was published as “Imprisoned with the Pharaohs” in the first anniversary issue (May–June–July 1924) of Weird Tales, the ad verifies that “Under the Pyramids” was Lovecraft’s original title for the work. It appeared, however, only as by Houdini; Lovecraft had written the story unexpectedly in the first person, causing Henneberger to feel awkward about affixing a collaborative byline on it.

  Lovecraft’s concern at the moment, however, was to get a newly typed version to Henneberger as quickly as possible. Fortunately, he had brought along the autograph manuscript, so the morning of the 3rd found him at the office of “The Reading Lamp” (on which more later) frantically retyping the long story; but he was only half done when it was time to go to St Paul’s Chapel for the service.

  Sonia had, incidentally, declared that a civil service would have been quite sufficient, but Lovecraft insisted on a church wedding. As she herself reports, it was his decision to have the service at this exquisite eighteenth-century relic—“where Washington and Lord Howe and many other great men had worshipped!”[23] St Paul’s is an Episcopal church; and Lovecraft was quite aware that he was following in the tradition of his parents, who had married at St Paul’s in Boston, also an Episcopal church.[24]

  In any event, the couple was planning to go that evening to Philadelphia—whose colonial antiquities Lovecraft in November 1923 had expressed a wish to see[25]—for their honeymoon, but were too tired, so they presumably returned to 259 Parkside for the evening. There was also the matter of the Houdini manuscript remained to be dealt with. Sonia tells the tale this way:

  It was not “a public stenographer” who copied H. P.’s handwritten notes for the Houdini manuscript. It was I alone who was able to read these erased and crossed-out notes. I read them slowly to him while H. P. pounded them out on a borrowed typewriter, borrowed from the hotel in Philadelphia where we spent the first day and night copying that precious manuscript which had to meet the printer’s dead-line. When that manuscript was finished we were too tired and exhausted for honey-mooning or anything else.[26]

  She is attempting to refute W. Paul Cook’s claim that the story was typed by a public stenographer; but it was indeed typed at a public stenographer’s office. Although the couple was staying at the Robert Morris Hotel, the only stenographer’s office that was open in the evening was in the Hotel Vendig, and the two of them spent both their evenings in Philadelphia (March 4 and 5) there finishing the typing job.[27] The story was sent to Weird Tales immediately, and Lovecraft received payment of $100—the largest sum he had hitherto earned as a fiction writer—on March 21.[28] It was the only occasion on which he was paid by Weird Tales in advance of publication.

  “Under the Pyramids” is quite an able piece of work, and it remains a much undervalued tale. It is true that some of the earlier parts read rather like a travelogue, or even an encyclopaedia:

  The pyramids stand on a high rock plateau, this group forming next to the northernmost of the series of regal and aristocratic cemeteries built in the neighbourhood of the extinct capital Memphis, which lay on the same side of the Nile, somewhat south of Gizeh, and which flourished between 3400 and 2000 B.C. The greatest pyramid, which lies nearest the modern road, was built by King Cheops or Khufu about 2800 B.C., and stands more than 450 feet in perpendicular height.

  Lovecraft had done considerable library work on Egyptian antiquities in preparation for writing the tale, and also had with him The Tomb of Perneb (1916), a volume issued by the Metropolitan Museum of Art; he had probably purchased it on one of his New York trips of 1922. Some of the imagery of the story probably also derives from Théophile Gautier’s superb non-supernatural tale of Egyptian horror, “One of Cleopatra’s Nights.” Lovecraft owned Lafcadio Hearn’s translation of One of Cleopatra’s Nights and Other Fantastic Romances (1882).

  In any case, the narrative nevertheless gains cumulative power as we see Houdini cast down some spectacularly deep chasm in the Temple of the Sphinx (Lovecraft had abandoned the idea of using Campbell’s Tomb as the site of the central action of the story) and his laborious struggles not merely to escape from his bonds but to answer an “idle question” that had haunted him throughout his stay in Egypt: “what huge and loathsome abnormality was the Sphinx originally carven to represent?” This last bit is Lovecraft’s addition, and it in fact becomes the focus of the entire tale. Houdini himself is, accordingly, removed from centre stage as an active participant in the narrative, becoming largely an observer of bizarre phenomena; and, in what can only be a tart spoof of one of the most physically robust individuals of his day, he faints on three different occasions during the entire escapade.

  What Houdini encounters is an immense underground cavern—“Bases of columns whose middles were higher than human sight . . . mere bases of things that must each dwarf the Eiffel Tower to insignificance”—peopled with the most hideous entities imaginable. Houdini ponders the curiously morbid temperament of the ancient Egyptians (“All these people thought of was death and the dead”), in particular their notions of the spirit or ka, which can return to its body or other bodies after it had “wandered about the upper and lower worlds in a horrible way”. There are “blood-congealing legends” of what “decadent priestcraft” fashioned on occasion—“composite mummies made by the artificial union of human trunks and limbs with the heads of animals in imitation of the elder gods.” Considering all this, Houdini is dumbfounded to come upon living embodiments of such entities:

  I would not look at the marching things. That I desperately resolved as I heard their creaking joints and nitrous wheezing above the dead music and the dead tramping. It was merciful that they did not s
peak . . . but God! their crazy torches began to cast shadows on the surface of those stupendous columns. Heaven take it away! Hippopotami should not have human hands and carry torches . . . men should not have the heads of crocodiles. . . .

  This is one of the most striking examples of a tendency we will see in much of Lovecraft’s later fiction—the implication that myths and legends are imperfectly preserved memories of real, but loathsome, events or entities. But the crux of the tale is Houdini’s discovery of the answer to that “idle question” he had asked himself earlier. The composite creatures appear to be laying down huge amounts of food as offerings to some strange entity that appears fleetingly out of an aperture in the underground cavern: “It was as large, perhaps, as a good-sized hippopotamus, but very curiously shaped. It seemed to have no neck, but five separate shaggy heads springing in a row from a roughly cylindrical trunk . . . Out of these heads darted curious rigid tentacles which seized ravenously on the excessively great quantities of unmentionable food placed before the aperture.” What could this possibly be? “The five-headed monster that emerged . . . that five-headed monster as large as a hippopotamus . . . the five-headed monster—and that of which it is the merest fore paw . . .”

  This is, perhaps, one of the relatively few instances where there is a genuine “surprise” ending in Lovecraft. On the whole, the tale is a rousing success, and it appropriately led off the huge May–June–July 1924 issue of Weird Tales. Lovecraft was, indeed, represented in three different contributions in this issue, the others being “Hypnos” and C. M. Eddy’s “The Loved Dead.”

  One bizarre postscript to this entire affair concerns that last tale. A decade later Lovecraft, in discussing his relatively limited share of “real-life” experiences, noted in passing: “I have several times been in a police station . . . once to see the Chief of Police about the banning of a client’s magazine from the stands . . .”[29] This can be nothing more than a reference to the fact that this issue of Weird Tales was banned on the grounds that “The Loved Dead” was about necrophilia (true enough, indeed) and apparently considered obscene. Lovecraft, oddly enough, does not discuss this matter in contemporary letters, and it is now hard to discover what actually happened. There are some indications, in Lovecraft’s correspondence, that the magazine was banned only in the state of Indiana (“About poor Eddy’s tale—it certainly did achieve fame of a sort! His name must have rung in tones of fiery denunciation all through the corridors & beneath the classic rotunda (if it has a rotunda) of the Indiana State Capitol!”[30]); but if so, I cannot see why Lovecraft would have gone to the Chief of Police in New York (it could hardly have been anywhere else) on the matter. To what degree the notoriety of the banning affected sales of Weird Tales is also in doubt: it can certainly not be said (as I myself have on occasion been careless enough to say) that this banning somehow “saved” the magazine by causing a run on the issue, especially since it would be four months before the next issue appeared. We may discover, however, that less fortunate consequences occurred—at least, as far as Lovecraft was concerned—in later years.

  Meanwhile, Lovecraft was becoming very much involved with Weird Tales—perhaps more than he would have liked. In mid-March he reports that Henneberger “is making a radical change in the policy of Weird Tales, and that he has in mind a brand new magazine to cover the field of Poe-Machen shudders. This magazine, he says, will be ‘right in my line’, and he wants to know if I would consider moving to CHICAGO to edit it!”[31] There is a certain ambiguity in this utterance, but I believe the sense is not that Henneberger would start a “brand new magazine” but that Weird Tales itself would be made over into a “new” magazine featuring Poe-Machen shudders. Lovecraft had earlier noted that Baird had been ousted as editor and that Farnsworth Wright had been placed in his stead;[32] this was only a stop-gap measure (the May–June–July issue of Weird Tales appears to have been edited by Wright and Otis Adelbert Kline, although surely a large proportion of the contents consisted of material that had been previously accepted by Baird), and Lovecraft was indeed Henneberger’s first choice for editor of Weird Tales.

  Lovecraft has frequently been criticised for failing to take up this opportunity just at the time when, as a new husband, he needed a steady income; the thinking is that he should have overcome his purely aesthetic distaste of the modern architecture of Chicago and accepted the offer. But the matter is considerably more complicated than this scenario suggests. First, although Sonia was in favour of a move to Chicago “if [the offer] definitely materialises and is accompanied by the requisite guarantees,”[33] it would either have meant Sonia’s search for uncertain job prospects in Chicago or the couple’s having to live a thousand miles away from each other merely for the sake of employment. Second, Lovecraft knew that Henneberger was deeply in debt: he reports that Henneberger has “lost $51,000.00 on his two magazines”[34] (i.e., Weird Tales and Detective Tales), and there was no guarantee at all that either enterprise would continue in operation much longer; if Lovecraft had therefore left for Chicago, he might after a few months have been stranded there with no job and with little prospect of getting one. Lovecraft was, in my view, wise to decline the offer. In any case, even in the most ideal financial circumstances, he might not have made the best editor of a magazine like Weird Tales. His fastidious taste would have rejected much that was actually published in its pages: there was simply not enough artistically polished weird fiction—of the Machen-Dunsany-Blackwood grade—to fill what was really nothing more than a cheap pulp magazine paying a penny a word. It is a brutal fact that the overwhelming amount of material published in Weird Tales is, on the literary scale, complete rubbish, although this seems to matter little to those misguided souls who continue up to the present day to wax nostalgic about the magazine.

  What actually happened to Weird Tales in this crisis was that Henneberger sold off his share of Detective Tales to the co-founder of Rural Publications, J. M. Lansinger (who retained Baird as editor of that magazine), appointed Farnsworth Wright as permanent editor of Weird Tales (he would retain that position until 1940), and then—as the only way to make up the $40,000 debt he had accrued—come to an agreement with B. Cornelius, the printer of the magazine, as follows: “Cornelius became chief stockholder with an agreement that if the $40,000 owed him was ever repaid by profits from the magazine, Henneberger would be returned the stock.”[35] A new company, the Popular Fiction Publishing Co., was formed to issue the magazine, with the stockholders being Cornelius, Farnsworth Wright, and William Sprenger (Weird Tales’ business manager); after a several-month hiatus Weird Tales resumed publication with the November 1924 issue. Although Henneberger retained a minor interest in the new company, Weird Tales never made sufficient profits for him to buy it back; in any case, he seems to have lost interest in the venture after a few years and finally drifted entirely out of the picture.

  Farnsworth Wright (1888–1940) deserves some mention, as Lovecraft would eventually develop a very curious relationship with him. He had been the magazine’s first reader from the very beginning and had several undistinguished stories in early issues; Lovecraft dismissed him in February 1924 as a “mediocre Chicago author,”[36] and writing was indeed not where his strengths lay. He had served in World War I and afterward was music critic for the Chicago Herald and Examiner, continuing in this latter activity for a time even after he took over the editorship of Weird Tales. By early 1921 he had contracted Parkinson’s disease, and the illness worsened throughout the rest of his life, so that by the end of the decade he could not sign his name. (One unexpected and rather despicable consequence of this is that letters with Wright’s signature are highly prized collectors’ items.)

  It is difficult to gauge Wright’s success as editor of Weird Tales, especially since very different yardsticks can be used to measure “success” in something of this kind. It is, certainly, something in his favour that he managed to keep the magazine going even during the worst years of the depression; but there can
similarly be no denying that he published an appalling amount of trite, hackneyed, and simply bad fiction that would never have appeared elsewhere and, in an ideal world, should never have been published in the first place. Lovecraft felt that Wright was erratic, capricious, and even a little hypocritical, at least as regards his handling of Lovecraft’s own work; and, in spite of those who have come to Wright’s defence on this score, this view seems fairly plausible. Lovecraft may have had excessively high expectations of his success with Wright, so that rejections came with added bitterness. As early as March 1924 he wrote to Lillian about a letter Wright sent to Frank Long: “he mentioned my stories with extravagant praise—saying that I am the greatest short story writer since Poe, or something like that . . .”[37] In some senses Lovecraft’s irritation with Wright stemmed from what he eventually realised was a somewhat naive view that aesthetically meritorious work should be rewarded commensurately. It would be years before he learned that writing for the pulps was simply a business, and that Wright looked upon the matter in that light. If most of Weird Tales’ readership wanted cheap, formula-ridden hackwork, Wright would make sure to give it to them.

  In the short term, however, Lovecraft and Sonia had a household to set in order. The first thing to do was to persuade aunt Lillian (and perhaps Annie as well) to come to New York to live with them. This seems to have been an entirely sincere desire on the part of both Lovecraft and Sonia: the latter writes, on a joint postcard to Lillian, “Hope to see you in New York soon,”[38] while Lovecraft in his marriage-announcement letter states jovially, “Dost fancy the Old Gentleman would transfer the family seat without sending for his first-born daughter?” Lillian was at this time almost sixty-six years old and probably in declining health; Lovecraft says with a cheerfulness bordering on wish-fulfilment, “You will feel better and more active here,” but it is clear that she herself had no desire to move—especially after her nephew failed to take her into his confidence regarding the most dramatic change in his personal circumstances—and she was even reluctant to visit the couple in New York, although she finally did come for more than a month late in the year.

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