I am providence the life.., p.82
I Am Providence: The Life and Times of H. P. Lovecraft (2 VOLUMES), page 82
The poetry of New York had not quite worn off after seven months. Lovecraft interestingly reports that “Crane is writing a long poem on Brooklyn Bridge in a modern medium”: this would, of course, be Crane’s masterpiece, The Bridge (1930), on which he had begun work as early as February 1923. It should be pointed out that Crane was rather less charitable to Lovecraft in his various letters than Lovecraft was to Crane. Writing on September 14 to his mother and grandmother, Crane notes Loveman’s arrival in the city but says that he has not spent much time with him because he has been occupied with his many friends—“Miss Sonia Green [sic] and her piping-voiced husband, Howard Lovecraft, (the man who visited Sam in Cleveland one summer when Galpin was also there) kept Sam traipsing around the slums and wharf streets until four this morning looking for Colonial specimens of architecture, and until Sam tells me he groaned with fatigue and begged for the subway!” The former “invalid” Lovecraft had already become famous for outwalking all his friends!
Kleiner, in a memoir, supplies a partial answer to a question that has perhaps occurred to nearly everyone reading of Lovecraft’s long walks all around Manhattan at night, whether alone or with others: how is it that he escaped being the victim of a crime? Kleiner writes:
In Greenwich Village, for whose eccentric habitants he had little use, he was fond of poking about in back alleys where his companions preferred not to go. In prohibition years, with murderous affrays among bootleggers and rum-runners likely to break out anywhere, this was a particularly dangerous business. Every other house in this neighborhood was open to suspicion as a speakeasy. I recall that at least once, while stumbling around old barrels and crates in some dark corner of this area, Lovecraft found a doorway suddenly illuminated and an excited foreigner, wearing the apron that was an almost infallible sign of a speakeasy bartender, enquiring hotly what he wanted. Loveman and Kirk went in after Lovecraft and got him safely out. None of us, surely, was under any illusion as to what might very well happen in such an obscure corner of the city.
Lovecraft was certainly fearless—perhaps a little foolhardy—on these jaunts. He was, of course, at this time a fairly imposing physical specimen at nearly six feet and 200 pounds; but physical size means nothing when one is faced with a knife or gun, and many criminals are also not put off by a prospective victim’s apparent lack of prosperity. Lovecraft was, in effect, simply lucky in not coming to harm on these peregrinations.
Annie Gamwell paid a visit beginning on September 21; over the next several days he showed her the same antiquarian treasures in Greenwich Village and elsewhere that he had just seen—it is obvious that he could not get enough of them. On the 24th he and Loveman went to the Poe Cottage in Fordham and then to the Van Cortlandt mansion (1748) in the Bronx. The next day Lovecraft took Annie to the Poe Cottage. On the 26th the two of them wrote Lillian a joint postcard from the Dyckman House (c. 1783), a small Dutch colonial farmhouse in the far northern reaches of Manhattan; Annie writes charmingly, if a little wistfully, “Would like to buy this house—it’s so homey & nice.” (In a long letter he wrote to Lillian on the 29th and 30th Lovecraft speaks even more wistfully of buying back “the old place in Foster,” i.e., the Stephen Place home where his mother was born.) Later that day the two of them visited the spectacular but unfinished Cathedral of St John the Divine on the upper West Side near Columbia University. Annie went home the next day. That evening was a Blue Pencil Club meeting, and the prescribed topic for literary contributions was “The Old Home Town.” It was a theme close to Lovecraft’s heart, and he produced the thirteen-stanza poem “Providence” for the occasion—virtually the first creative writing he had done since writing “Under the Pyramids” in February. It was published in the Brooklynite for November 1924 and, sometime in November, in the Providence Evening Bulletin, for which he received $5.00.
Early October saw his first visit to Elizabeth, New Jersey (which Lovecraft persistently calls by its eighteenth-century name of Elizabethtown). An editorial in the New York Times had alerted him to the existence of colonial antiquities there, and on the 10th he went there by way of the Staten Island ferry and then another ferry to Elizabeth. He was entirely captivated. After arming himself with an array of guidebooks and historical matter from a stationery store, the public library, and the newspaper office (presumably the Elizabeth Daily Journal), he had only a chance to do a small amount of investigation on the edge of town before night fell and he had to return to Brooklyn. But he came back the next day, taking in the old Presbyterian Church, the First Church and its ancient churchyard, and along the Elizabeth River where the oldest houses stand. “But lud, ma’am—I cou’d rave all night about Elizabethtown!” he wrote to Lillian. But, as with Portsmouth, New Hampshire, and other sites, it was not only the prevalence of antique structures that delighted him:
There is no taint of New York & its nasty cosmopolitanism. All the people of substance are native Yankees, & though the factory sections teem with low Poles, they are not frequently met on the main streets. Niggers are quite thick in the byways of the town . . . The whole atmosphere of the place is marvellously colonial. . . . Elizabethtown is a balm, a sedative, & a tonic to the old-fashion’d soul rackt with modernity.
Is it any wonder that, when little more than a month later he and Sonia had to think of breaking up their household, Lovecraft wished to settle at least temporarily here?
On October 12 Lovecraft had Loveman over for dinner (prepared by Sonia, of course), after which the two men returned to Columbia Heights, met Crane, and went for a walk with him in the evening along the shore. Crane seemed to take note of this meeting when he said in a letter that Sam “brought along that queer Lovecraft person with him, so we had no particularly intimate conversation.” Later Lovecraft and Loveman crossed over to lower Manhattan for more colonial exploration, staying there till midnight.
Lovecraft’s Elizabeth visit proved to be the catalyst for his first story in eight months, “The Shunned House.” Part of his description of the place reads as follows:
. . . on the northeast corner of Bridge St. & Elizabeth Ave. is a terrible old house—a hellish place where night-black deeds must have been done in the early seventeen-hundreds—with a blackish unpainted surface, unnaturally steep roof, & an outside flight of steps leading to the second story, suffocatingly embowered in a tangle of ivy so dense that one cannot but imagine it accursed or corpse-fed. It reminded me of the Babbitt house in Benefit St., which as you recall made me write those lines entitled “The House” in 1920.
This house in Elizabeth, unfortunately, is no longer standing. The poem “The House” is a finely atmospheric piece published in Galpin’s Philosopher for December 1920; its source—what Lovecraft here calls the Babbitt house—was the house at 135 Benefit Street in Providence, where Lillian had resided in 1919–20 as a companion for Mrs C. H. Babbit (so spelled in the 1920 U.S. census). That house had been built around 1763 and is a magnificent structure—with basement, two stories, and attic—built on the rising hill, with shuttered doors in the basement leading directly out into the sidewalk. It has been considerably restored since Lovecraft’s day, but at that time it must have been a spectral place. Lovecraft spent the whole of the 16th through the 19th of October writing a draft of the story, making considerable “eliminations & rearrangements” and doing more revision the next day after having read it to Frank Long. (It was in the evening of this day that Sonia was stricken with her gastric attack and had to be taken to the hospital.)
“The Shunned House” opens sententiously: “From even the greatest of horrors irony is seldom absent.” The irony in question is the fact that Edgar Allan Poe, “the world’s greatest master of the terrible and the bizarre,” in his late (1848–49) courtship of the minor poet Sarah Helen Whitman, walked frequently along Benefit Street in Providence past a house whose bizarrerie, had he known of it, far surpassed any of his own fictional horrors. This house, occupied by several generations of the Harris fam
The first-person unnamed narrator had known of this house since boyhood, when some of his childhood friends would fearfully explore it, sometimes even boldly entering through the unlocked front door “in quest of shudders.” As he grows older, he discovers that his uncle, Elihu Whipple, had done considerable research on the house and its tenants, and he finds his seemingly dry genealogical record full of sinister suggestion. He comes to suspect that some nameless object or entity is causing the deaths by somehow sucking the vitality out of the house’s occupants; perhaps it has some connexion with a strange thing in the cellar, “a vague, shifting deposit of mould or nitre . . . [that] bore an uncanny resemblance to a doubled-up human figure.”
After telling, at some length, the history of the house since 1763, the narrator finds himself puzzled on several fronts; in particular, he cannot account for why some of the occupants, just prior to their deaths, would cry out in a coarse and idiomatic form of French, a language they did not know. As he explores town records, he seems at last to have come upon the “French element.” A sinister figure named Etienne Roulet had come from France to East Greenwich, Rhode Island, in 1686; he was a Huguenot and fled France after the revocation of the Edict of Nantes, moving to Providence ten years later in spite of much opposition from the town fathers. What particularly intrigues the narrator is his possible connexion with an even more dubious figure, Jacques Roulet of Caude, who in 1598 was accused of lycanthropy.
Finally the narrator and his uncle decide to “test—and if possible destroy—the horror of the house.” They come one evening in 1919, armed with both a Crookes tube (a device invented by Sir William Crookes involving the emission of electrons between two electrodes) and a flame-thrower. The two men take turns resting; both experience hideous and disturbing dreams. When the narrator wakes up from his dream, he finds that some nameless entity has utterly engulfed his uncle:
Out of the fungus-ridden earth steamed up a vaporous corpse-light, yellowed and diseased, which bubbled and lapped to a gigantic height in vague outlines half-human and half-monstrous, through which I could see the chimney and fireplace beyond. It was all eyes—wolfish and mocking—and the rugose insect-like head dissolved at the top to a thin stream of mist which curled putridly about and finally vanished up the chimney. . . . That object was my uncle—the venerable Elihu Whipple—who with blackening and decaying features leered and gibbered at me, and reached out dripping claws to rend me in the fury which this horror had brought.
Realising that his uncle is past help, he aims the Crookes tube at him. A further daemoniac sight appears to him: the object seems to liquefy and adopt various temporary forms (“He was at once a devil and a multitude, a charnel-house and a pageant”); then the features of the Harris line seem to mingle with his uncle’s. The narrator flees, heading down College Hill to the modern downtown business district; when he returns, hours later, the nebulous entity is gone. Later that day he brings six carboys of sulphuric acid to the house, digs up the earth where the doubled-up anthropomorphic shape lies, and pours the acid down the hole—realising only then that the shape was merely the “titan elbow” of some huge and hideous monster.
What is, of course, remarkable about “The Shunned House” is the exquisite linkage of real and imagined history throughout the tale. Much of the history of the house is real, although it has at no time been unoccupied; indeed, the 1919 date was surely chosen because this was when Lillian was residing there. Other details are also authentic—the straightening out of Benefit Street after the removal of the graves of the oldest settlers to the North Burial Ground; the mentions of the great floods of 1815 (which in fact caused much destruction of houses along Benefit, South Main, and Water Streets, as the many surviving structures from the 1816–20 period attest); even the random mention of the fact that “As lately as 1892 an Exeter community exhumed a dead body and ceremoniously burnt its heart in order to prevent certain alleged visitations injurious to the public health and peace.” This last point has been studied by Faye Ringel Hazel, who points out that several articles on this subject appeared in the Providence Journal in March 1892, and goes on to examine the vampire legendry of Exeter (in Washington County, south of Providence) and the neighbouring area.
But on the other hand, there are sly insertions of fictitious events and connexions into the historical record. Elihu Whipple is said to be a descendant of Capt. Abraham Whipple, who led the burning of the Gaspee in 1772. The sequence of births and deaths of the Harris family is largely, but not wholly, fictitious.
The most interesting elaboration upon history in the story is the figure of Etienne Roulet. This figure is imaginary, but Jacques Roulet of Caude is quite real. Lovecraft’s brief mention of him is taken almost verbatim from the account in John Fiske’s Myths and Myth-Makers (1872), which we have already seen was a significant source of Lovecraft’s early views on the anthropology of religion. Part of Fiske’s account of Roulet is, however, a direct quotation from S. Baring-Gould’s A Book of Were-wolves (1865); but Lovecraft had not read this book at this time (he would do so only a decade or so later), so that his information on Jacques Roulet must have come from Fiske. It is, of course, a little peculiar that the presumed grandson of a reputed werewolf should become some sort of vampiric entity; aside from “Psychopompos” and perhaps “The Hound,” this is the only occasion where Lovecraft treats either of these standard myths, and here he has altered it beyond recognition—or, rather, accounted for it with a novel way.
For the most interesting part of the story—in terms of Lovecraft’s future development as a writer—is a strange passage in the middle as the narrator is attempting to come to grips with the exact nature of the malevolent entity:
We were not . . . in any sense childishly superstitious, but scientific study and reflection had taught us that the known universe of three dimensions embraces the merest fraction of the whole cosmos of substance and energy. In this case an overwhelming preponderance of evidence from numerous authentic sources pointed to the tenacious existence of certain forces of great power and, so far as the human point of view is concerned, exceptional malignancy. To say that we actually believed in vampires or werewolves would be a carelessly inclusive statement. Rather must it be said that we were not prepared to deny the possibility of certain unfamiliar and unclassified modifications of vital force and attenuated matter; existing very infrequently in three-dimensional space because of its more intimate connexion with other spatial units, yet close enough to the boundary of our own to furnish us occasional manifestations which we, for lack of a proper vantage point, may never hope to understand. . . .
Such a thing was surely not a physical or biochemical impossibility in the light of a newer science which includes the theories of relativity and intra-atomic action. . . .
This remarkable passage suddenly transforms “The Shunned House” into a sort of science-fiction story (or perhaps proto-science-fiction, since the genre cannot be said to have come into true existence at this time), in that it enunciates the crucial principle of a scientific rationale for a seemingly supernatural occurrence or event. A year and a half after Lovecraft had expressed bafflement and perturbation at the Einstein theory, he was making convenient use of it in fiction. The reference to “intra-atomic action” is some sort of bow to the quantum theory, although I have not found any discussions of it at this time in letters. Whether this scientific account is at all convincing or plausible is not quite to the point; it is the gesture that is important. That the entity is killed not by driving a stake through its heart but by sulphuric acid is telling. The “titan elbow” seems an adaptation of the ending of “Under the Pyramids,” where what appeared to be a f
The figure of Elihu Whipple is clearly modelled upon that of Lovecraft’s own uncle, Franklin Chase Clark. Naturally there are some divergences: Whipple is a bachelor (in this way Lovecraft could dispense with any grieving widow when Whipple dies), and is considerably older than Dr Clark, as he had begun his medical practice in 1860, when Clark was only thirteen. In fact, Whipple is not described in any great detail, and the two occasions on which the narrator expresses sadness at his passing—“I am lonely without that gentle soul whose long years were filled only with honour, virtue, good taste, benevolence, and learning”; “. . . I shed the first of the many tears with which I have paid unaffected tribute to my beloved uncle’s memory”—are still very reserved, although even this level of personal emotion is unusual for a Lovecraft story. There is no question that Lovecraft did indeed feel the loss of Dr Clark poignantly; it is simply that he has not here characterised Dr Whipple sufficiently so that a reader will feel analogously.
“The Shunned House” is a dense, richly textured story with convincing historical background and a fine sense of cumulative horror. The account of the lives and deaths of the Harris family in the second chapter may perhaps go on a little too long: Lovecraft hoped that it will create an atmosphere of the eerily sinister (the narrator remarks: “In this continuous record there seemed to me to brood a persistent evil beyond anything in Nature as I had known it”), but it is perhaps a little too dry and clinical for that effect to occur. But the hideous climax (with another genuine surprise ending) and the thought-provoking scientific rationale for the horror make this a noteworthy landmark in Lovecraft’s early corpus.
That he chose to write a story about Providence at this juncture is hardly surprising. “The Shunned House” is, indeed, the first significant tale to be set in Providence and to evoke its history and topography; earlier, minor stories such as “From Beyond” nominally take place there but have nothing of this tale’s specificity of setting. The poem “The House” also lacks this specificity, and one would never know that it was based on 135 Benefit Street had Lovecraft not said so. For all his initial euphoria at coming to New York, he had never left Providence; the trip to Elizabeth had merely acted as a sort of mnemonic trigger for a tale that brings his hometown to life.
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