I am providence the life.., p.8

I Am Providence: The Life and Times of H. P. Lovecraft (2 VOLUMES), page 8


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

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  In “Supernatural Horror in Literature” Lovecraft, although deriving much of his information on the Gothic tradition from Edith Birkhead’s landmark study, The Tale of Terror (1921), nevertheless ably identifies the “novel dramatic paraphernalia” which Walpole and his successors introduced, and which

  consisted first of all of the Gothic castle, with its awesome antiquity, vast distances and ramblings, deserted or ruined wings, damp corridors, unwholesome hidden catacombs, and galaxy of ghosts and appalling legends, as a nucleus of suspense and daemoniac fright. In addition, it included the tyrannical and malevolent nobleman as villain; the saintly, long-persecuted, and generally insipid heroine who undergoes the major terrors and serves as a point of view and focus for the reader’s sympathies; the valorous and immaculate hero, always of high birth but often in humble disguise; the convention of high-sounding foreign names, mostly Italian, for the characters; and the infinite array of stage properties which includes strange lights, damp trap-doors, extinguished lamps, mouldy hidden manuscripts, creaking hinges, shaking arras, and the like.

  This very description displays Lovecraft’s awareness that the Gothic “stage properties” had very quickly devolved into hackneyed and standardised tropes that had lost all symbolic value and were more capable of raising a smirk than a shiver. Jane Austen did exactly that in Northanger Abbey (1818). By 1820—in spite of the novelty of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818), in which science was shown to be as productive of horrors as mediaeval superstition—a new direction was required; and, appropriately, it came from a new country.

  Charles Brockden Brown had attempted to establish Radcliffian romance on American soil with Wieland (1798) and later novels, but with indifferent success. As early as 1829 William Hazlitt raised a point concerning Brown, and by extension all American Gothic writing, that has some bearing on Lovecraft:

  . . . no ghost, we will venture to say, was ever seen in North America. They do not walk in broad day; and the night of ignorance and superstition which favours their appearance, was long past before the United States lifted up their head beyond the Atlantic wave. . . . In this orderly and undramatic state of security and freedom from natural foes, Mr Brown has provided one of his heroes with a demon to torment him, and fixed him at his back;—but what is to keep him there? Not any prejudice or lurking superstition on the part of the American reader: for the lack of such, the writer is obliged to make up by incessant rodomontade, and face-making.[2]

  Hazlitt may have been somewhat sanguine about the rationality of the American mind, but he points to a real dilemma: if the secret of the “kick” (as Lovecraft would have called it) provided by Gothicism is the evocation of the supernatural in a mediaeval age, how could the supernatural be manifested in a country that had no mediaeval age?

  It was Edgar Allan Poe (1809–1849) who produced one solution to this problem, not so much by setting his tales back on the Old Continent but by creating a very meticulously described but ultimately imprecise never-never-land that shifted the focus of horror from topography to the human mind. It is often forgotten how close Poe is to the final stages of Gothicism; his first important tale, “Metzengerstein,” was published in 1832, only twelve years after Melmoth; and whether or not we accept G. R. Thompson’s belief that it is actually a parody of Gothic conventions,[3] it is very clear that much of the imagery derives from English and German Gothic, particularly E. T. A. Hoffmann. Recall Poe’s celebrated defence of the originality of his tales against those critics who claimed that it was too Germanic: “If in many of my productions terror has been the thesis, I maintain that terror is not of Germany, but of the soul.”[4] This single sentence pinpoints the revolutionary shift of emphasis effected by the body of Poe’s work; Lovecraft elaborates upon the notion:

  Before Poe the bulk of weird writers had worked largely in the dark; without an understanding of the psychological basis of the horror appeal, and hampered by more or less or conformity to certain empty literary conventions such as the happy ending, virtue rewarded, and in general a hollow moral didacticism . . . Poe, on the other hand, perceived the essential impersonality of the real artist; and knew that the function of creative fiction is merely to express and interpret events and sensations as they are, regardless of how they tend or what they prove—good or evil, attractive or repulsive, stimulating or depressing—with the author always acting as a vivid and detached chronicler rather than as a teacher, sympathiser, or vendor of opinion.

  The shift from external to internal horror was by no means universal, and is not universal even in Poe’s work: many of his tales are definitely supernatural, and in some tales it is impossible to determine whether a given horrific effect is supernatural or psychological (when the protagonist of “The Black Cat” sees on the wall of his house, “as if graven in bas relief upon the white surface, the figure of a gigantic cat,” [5] is the apparition real or is he merely hallucinating?). But Poe’s work was a model for many writers aside from Lovecraft, in its richly complex style, its emphasis on abnormal psychology, and—perhaps most important of all—its theoretical and practical proof that horror works best in short compass. In all subsequent horror literature from Poe’s time to the present, the issue of whether there can even be such a thing as a “horror novel” (as opposed to a suspense or mainstream novel with horrific or supernatural interludes) has not been satisfactorily answered or even dealt with.

  It is difficult to detect Poe’s immediate influence on the weird literature that followed him, since what Lovecraft called the “aftermath of Gothic fiction” lingered in both England and the United States until almost the end of the century, with such writers as Frederick Marryat (The Phantom Ship [1839]), Edward Bulwer-Lytton (“The Haunted and the Haunters” [1859], A Strange Story [1862]), Wilkie Collins, and many others. Shortly after Poe, the Irishman Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu (1814–1873), evidently uninfluenced by Poe, produced work startlingly like his, especially in such short stories as “Green Tea” and “Carmilla”; his novels, the best of which is Uncle Silas (1864), are more in the traditional Gothic vein. By the turn of the century Le Fanu’s work had fallen into obscurity; Lovecraft never read much of it and did not like what he did read. He did, however, assiduously read Nathaniel Hawthorne’s short stories and novels, calling The House of the Seven Gables “New England’s greatest contribution to weird literature”; but Hawthorne was working in an older tradition. And yet, his work was suggestive to Lovecraft in offering yet another solution to the problem posed by Hazlitt, in that it drew upon the dark heritage of New England Puritanism so as to create a universe that, in the words of Maurice Lévy, “has a historical profundity”[6] that much other American weird fiction lacks.

  The latter quarter of the nineteenth century saw an enormous outpouring of horror literature; as Lovecraft remarked in a letter, “The Victorians went in strongly for weird fiction—Bulwer-Lytton, Dickens, Wilkie Collins, Harrison Ainsworth, Mrs. Oliphant, George W. M. Reynolds, H. Rider Haggard, R. L. Stevenson & countless others turned out reams of it.”[7] Prefaced by Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1886), the decade of the 1890s was remarkably fertile in what later came to be regarded as classics of the form, although Lovecraft did not become aware of many of them until much later.

  In the United States, Ambrose Bierce (1842–1914?), whose first story, “The Haunted Valley,” dates to so early as 1871, produced two landmark collections, Tales of Soldiers and Civilians (1891) and Can Such Things Be? (1893), which carried on Poe’s interest in psychological horror, augmented by a delightful lacing of cynicism and misanthropy; Lovecraft, however, did not discover Bierce’s work until 1919. He came upon the early weird work of Robert W. Chambers (1865–1933) at a still later date, but relished such eccentric volumes as The King in Yellow (1895), The Maker of Moons (1896), and other collections of tales. Chambers abandoned the weird and went on to become one of the best-selling writers of the first three decades of the new century with an appalling array of shopgirl romances,
causing Lovecraft to refer to him as a “fallen Titan.”[8] Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw (1898) was regarded as a brilliant but eccentric anomaly in the work of a writer already well established as a profound social commentator.

  In England, Arthur Machen (1863–1947) established his reputation with The Great God Pan and The Inmost Light (1894), The Three Impostors (1895), The House of Souls (1906), The Hill of Dreams (1907), and other works. Lovecraft did not encounter him until 1923. Bram Stoker (1847–1912) published Dracula in 1897, although it took some time for that novel to achieve eminence as the prototypical vampire novel. The enormously significant work of M. R. James (1862–1936), Lord Dunsany (1878–1957), and Algernon Blackwood (1869–1951), all of whom began publishing in the first decade of the twentieth century, was discovered by Lovecraft between 1919 and 1925.

  Weird fiction, then, was, if by no means a dominant voice (it never has been such), at least a significant presence in the final decade of the nineteenth century; and yet, I have elsewhere maintained[9] that the weird was not considered a genre at this time, and may not have been so considered for many years thereafter. Even Poe did not fancy himself as working exclusively in a weird vein, and he in fact did not do so, writing many humorous and satiric tales as well as the first detective stories. As he huffily declared in his preface to Tales of the Grotesque and Arabesque (1840): “Let us admit, for the moment, that the ‘phantasy-pieces’ now given are Germanic, or what not. Then Germanism is ‘the vein’ for the time being. To morrow I may be anything but German, as yesterday I was everything else.”[10] Similarly, it cannot be asserted that the work of Le Fanu, Stoker, Machen, Blackwood, or Dunsany is wholly weird, or was so regarded by their authors; and certainly only a very small proportion of Hawthorne’s or Stevenson’s work is weird.

  It may be observed that no mention has been made of periodicals devoted to weird fiction; there were none, and there would be none until the establishment of Weird Tales in 1923. Poe published in the standard periodicals of his day (Graham’s Magazine, Godey’s Lady’s Book, Southern Literary Messenger), some of which he edited; Bierce was widely published in magazines and newspapers. In other words, the weird was not automatically banned from mainstream magazines as it would be in the early twentieth century in America; indeed, Machen, Blackwood, and Dunsany continued to publish in mainstream magazines in England through the 1950s. The establishment of the Munsey magazines in the 1890s gave an impetus of sorts to the field, as they published much weird, detective, and speculative fiction; but, since they were scorned (justifiably, for the most part) as cheap “popular” reading for the masses, they initiated that tendency—which the pulp magazines of the 1920s only solidified—of ghettoising all the genres and banishing them from standard magazines. I shall later have more to say about this phenomenon.

  The fact (and I believe it is a fact) that the weird was not a recognisable or discrete genre or mode of writing at the turn of the century, and for some time thereafter, is important in understanding Lovecraft’s place in the field, for I maintain that he was among the first to regard himself as predominantly a “weird writer.” One telltale sign of this state of affairs is the nearly total lack of historical or literary criticism of weird fiction prior to 1917, when Dorothy Scarborough published The Supernatural in Modern English Fiction, a thematically exhaustive but critically undistinguished work that nevertheless is a landmark for its mere existence. Even the Gothic tradition failed to secure a critic before Birkhead’s The Tale of Terror (1921). (Charles L. Eastlake’s History of the Gothic Revival [1872] is exclusively concerned with neo-Gothic architecture, not literature. Edward Yardley’s The Supernatural in Romantic Fiction [1880] is a rather cursory thematic study of supernatural motifs used in literature from the Middle Ages to the Romantic period.) This is what makes “Supernatural Horror in Literature” still more impressive as a watershed in literary criticism.

  Lovecraft dates his first work of prose fiction to 1897[11] and elsewhere identifies it as “The Noble Eavesdropper”; about all we know of it is that it concerned “a boy who overheard some horrible conclave of subterranean beings in a cave.”[12] As the work does not survive, it would perhaps be idle to point to any literary sources for it; but the influence of the Arabian Nights (the cave of Ali Baba and other stories involving caves) might be conjectured. A still more likely source, perhaps, would be his grandfather Whipple, the only member of his family who appears to have enjoyed the weird. As Lovecraft states in a late letter:

  I never heard oral weird tales except from my grandfather—who, observing my tastes in reading, used to devise all sorts of impromptu original yarns about black woods, unfathomed caves, winged horrors (like the “night-gaunts” of my dreams, about which I used to tell him), old witches with sinister cauldrons, & “deep, low, moaning sounds”. He obviously drew most of his imagery from the early gothic romances—Radcliffe, Lewis, Maturin, &c.—which he seemed to like better than Poe or other later fantaisistes.[13]

  Here are some of the components (unfathomed caves, deep, low, moaning sounds) of the imagery of “The Noble Eavesdropper.” But Lovecraft admits that this is the only tale he wrote prior to his reading of Poe.

  Given the state of the field of weird fiction in 1898, and given Lovecraft’s age, it is not surprising that the tales of Poe would have been the first weird literature he stumbled upon. The Gothic novels were far too long for absorption by most youths, even one so devoted to the eighteenth century as Lovecraft. Many of them had, moreover, by this time become very difficult to obtain (in the 1920s Lovecraft was disconcerted to find that even the New York Public Library did not own a copy of Melmoth the Wanderer). As for more modern writers, in 1921 Lovecraft would lament that “nine persons out of ten never heard of Ambrose Bierce, the greatest story writer except Poe whom America ever produced” (In Defence of Dagon). This may be somewhat of an exaggeration, but Bierce was by 1898 probably known widely only in the San Francisco literary circle in which he had established himself; in any case, his tales would probably have been considered too gruesome to give to an eight-year-old. The other writers I have mentioned here were either too recent or, again, too “adult” to be given to a young boy.

  Poe was, by the turn of the century, slowly gaining a place of eminence in American literature, although he still had to face posthumous attacks such as that of Henry James, who in 1876 made the celebrated remark: “With all due respect to the very original genius of the author of the ‘Tales of Mystery,’ it seems to me that to take him with more than a certain degree of seriousness is to lack seriousness one’s self. An enthusiasm for Poe is the mark of a decidedly primitive stage of reflection.”[14] Poe’s championing by Baudelaire, Mallarmé, and other Continental writers had slowly impelled reconsideration of his work by English and American critics. The English scholar John H. Ingram wrote the first biography, the two-volume Edgar Allan Poe: His Life, Letters and Opinions (1880); it was followed in 1885 by George E. Woodberry’s Edgar Allan Poe for the American Men of Letters series, later expanded as The Life of Edgar Allan Poe (1909). Lovecraft later acquired Ingram’s work and Woodberry’s 1885 volume.

  I am not sure which exact volume or edition of Poe was read by Lovecraft in 1898. In his library are found the Raven Edition (5 vols., 1903) and one volume (Essays and Philosophy) of the Cameo Edition (10 vols., 1904), but of course these could not have been what he read in 1898. It is highly unlikely that his family had the first collected edition (Griswold’s, 4 vols., 1850–56), as Lovecraft would surely have retained it; the same could be said for other early editions: Ingram’s (4 vols., 1874–75), Richard Henry Stoddard’s (6 vols., 1884), Edmund Clarence Stedman and Woodberry’s (10 vols., 1894–95). The landmark critical edition by James A. Harrison (17 vols., 1902), which would not be superseded until T. O. Mabbott’s edition of 1969–78, would have been a jewel in Lovecraft’s or his family’s library. One can only assume that he read some one-volume selection of tales, possibly a children’s or young adult’s edition, of whic
h there were already many by this time.

  It is, in fact, a little difficult to discern any clear-cut Poe influence in the first several of Lovecraft’s juvenile stories. He claims that his first story, written in 1897 (not named, but surely “The Noble Eavesdropper”), was “pre-Poe,”[15] implying that the subsequent tales were inspired by Poe; but I cannot see anything of Poe in “The Little Glass Bottle,” “The Secret Cave; or, John Lees Adventure,” “The Mystery of the Grave-yard; or, A Dead Man’s Revenge,” or “The Mysterious Ship.” The first of these was described by Lovecraft as “a juvenile attempt at humour”;[16] that is about as charitable an assessment as one can make.


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