I am providence the life.., p.86

I Am Providence: The Life and Times of H. P. Lovecraft (2 VOLUMES), page 86


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

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  Each Kalem member’s home was, apparently, always open to the others. Indeed, there is a strange entry in Lovecraft’s diary for March 15–16, unexplained by any existing letter, in which Lovecraft and Long walked along the Gowanus Expressway near the waterfront and then went over to Loveman’s apartment, at which point Lovecraft writes: “carry FBL upstairs.” I don’t imagine Long was overcome by alcohol or anything of the sort; probably he had become tired after the long walk.

  On the night of April 11 Lovecraft and Kirk, wishing to take advantage of a special $5 excursion fare to Washington, D.C., boarded the night train at Pennsylvania Station at midnight and arrived at dawn in the capital. They would have only a single morning and afternoon in the city, so they intended to make the most of it. There were two colleagues who could act as tour guides, Anne Tillery Renshaw and Edward L. Sechrist; and Renshaw had very obligingly offered to drive the visitors around in her car where possible. Lovecraft, Kirk, and Sechrist first made a walking tour of the important landmarks in the city centre, noting the Library of Congress (which failed to impress Lovecraft), the Capitol (which he thought inferior to Rhode Island’s great marble-domed State Capitol), the White House, the Washington Monument, the Lincoln Memorial, and all the rest. Renshaw then drove them to Georgetown, the colonial town founded in 1751, years before Washington was ever planned or built. Lovecraft found it very rich in colonial houses of all sorts. They then crossed the Key Memorial Bridge into Virginia, going through Arlington to Alexandria, entering the Christ Church, an exquisite late Georgian (1772–73) structure where Washington worshipped, and other old buildings in the city. After this, they proceeded south to Washington’s home, Mount Vernon, although they could not enter because it was Sunday. They drove back to Arlington, where, near the national cemetery, was the residence called Arlington, the manor of the Custis family. They also explored the cemetery, in particular the enormous Memorial Amphitheatre completed in 1920, which Lovecraft considered “one of the most prodigious and spectacular architectural triumphs of the Western World.”[48] Naturally, Lovecraft was transported by this structure because it reminded him of classical antiquity—it was based upon the Dionysiac Theatre in Athens—and because of its enormous size (it covers 34,000 square feet). They then came back to Washington, seeing as much as possible before catching the 4.35 train back to New York, including the Brick Capitol (1815) and the Supreme Court Building. They caught the train just in time.

  But by mid-May this endless round of socialising was becoming a little wearying to Lovecraft. He had, indeed, done singularly little creative work during the first four months of the year: his output consisted merely of five poems, two of which—“My Favourite Character” (January 31) and “Primavera” (March 27)—were written for Blue Pencil Club meetings, for which members were to produce literary compositions on a given topic. “My Favourite Character” is a witty light poem that examines the gamut of fictional characters, from the classics (“Esmond, D. Copperfield, or Hiawatha, / Or anything from some nice high-school author”) to the daring (“Jurgen, Clerk Nicholas, Boccaccio’s misses, / And sundry things of Joyce’s, from Ulysses”) to childhood favourites (“Boyhood’s own idols, whom the sages hear not— / Frank Merriwell, Nick Carter, and Fred Fearnot!”), and finally concludes:

  Now as for me, I am no man of learning

  To know just what I like and why I like it;

  Letters and hist’ry set my poor head turning

  Till not a choice can permanently strike it!

  My fav’rite? Fie on printed information—

  I’ll frankly hand myself the nomination!

  This is, to be sure, a weird anticipation of the future, for Lovecraft himself has indeed become a character in fiction. “Primavera,” on the other hand, is a pensive nature poem that finds both wonder and horror in the non-human world:

  There are whispers from groves auroral

  To blood half-afraid to hear,

  While the evening star’s faint choral

  Is an ecstasy touch’d with fear.

  And at night where the hill-wraiths rally

  Glows the far Walpurgis flame,

  Which the lonely swain in the valley

  Beholds, tho’ he dare not name.

  Of the other three poems, two are insignificant: there is the usual birthday poem to Jonathan E. Hoag, written this year only one day before Hoag’s birthday on February 10, and an equally frivolous birthday poem to Sonia, “To Xanthippe” (March 16). This nickname is of some interest, and Sonia explains its origin: “The nomenclature of ‘Socrates and Xantippe’ [sic] was originated by me because as time marched on and our correspondence became more intimate, I either saw in Howard or endowed him with a Socratic wisdom and genius, so that in a jocular vein I subscribed myself as Xantippe.”[49] Lovecraft may or may not have had Socratic wisdom; but Sonia evidently did not know that Xanthippe had a reputation in antiquity of being a shrew, hence is hardly a nickname someone ought to have chosen by design.

  The final poem, “The Cats” (February 15), is an entirely different proposition. This daemoniac six-stanza poem in quatrains is one of his most effective weird verses—a wild, uncontrolled spasm bringing out all the shuddersome mystery of the feline species:

  Legions of cats from the alleys nocturnal,

  Howling and lean in the glare of the moon,

  Screaming the future with mouthings infernal,

  Yelling the burden of Pluto’s red rune.

  It is, incidentally, good to see Lovecraft avoiding the stereotyped heroic couplet in all these poems.

  But that is the extent of Lovecraft’s work as fiction writer, poet, and even essayist; and clearly he felt that the time had come to put a halt on what he called “the daily dropping-in and cafeteria loafing” to which he was so fatally tempted by the presence of so many of his friends in the city, but which he knew was “death to any personal intellectual life or creative accomplishment.”[50] Accordingly, Lovecraft took to reading in the dressing alcove, leaving the light in the main room off so that he could pretend to be out if anyone came over. In many cases he knew that this skullduggery would not succeed: he and Kirk had set up a charming method of communication by banging on the radiator pipes, and there were times when Kirk knew Lovecraft was home, so that he would have to respond to the signal. But Lovecraft also adopted the stratagem of receiving visitors in his dressing-gown, with the bed unfolded, or with papers and manuscripts scattered all about, to discourage endless lounging around in his room. He would not cut out the weekly gang meetings yet, for this would seem too unusual, and in any case he really enjoyed them.

  Lovecraft reported this resolve in a letter to Lillian of May 20. The robbery of May 25 augmented his efforts to some degree, if only because he now had only one decent suit to his name and had to be careful not to wear it out. But after a month or so his resolve appears—if the diary is any guide—to have weakened, and he is out gallivanting with the boys as much as before.

  Amateur affairs were not quite over. The lack of a convention and election in 1924 meant that the existing editorial board continued in office by default, so that Lovecraft remained Official Editor. One thing he did during Sonia’s long stay in June and July was to put together the July 1925 United Amateur—the only issue for the 1924–25 term. This, he knew, would be his farewell to the UAPA—and, indeed, his farewell to organised amateurdom in general until he was lured back into the affairs of the NAPA in the early 1930s—and he wished to go out in style. On June 4–6 he wrote an insubstantial and flattering essay, “The Poetry of John Ravenor Bullen,” on the Anglo-Canadian poet and novelist who may or may not have introduced him to the Transatlantic Circulator in 1920, although this piece appeared only in the next issue of the United Amateur (September 1925). The July 1925 issue is full of contributions by the gang: Clark Ashton Smith’s poem “Apologia”; a brief essay by Frank Long on Samuel Loveman’s poetry, “Pirates and Hamadryades”; a review of two of Smith’s books of poetry by Alfred Galpin (under the
Consul Hasting pseudonym); two poems by Long, one of which, “A Man from Genoa,” would be the title poem of his collection published early the next year; Samuel Loveman’s delicate brief tale, “The One Who Found Pity”; and the usual “News Notes” (by Lovecraft), “Editorial” (by Lovecraft), and “President’s Message” (by Sonia).

  In some senses the “President’s Message” is the most interesting of these, at least biographically. The piece is dated June 16, but as this is the very day on which (according to Lovecraft’s diary) the issue was sent to the printer, it may have been written a day or two earlier. Sonia openly speaks of her difficulties during the official year:

  Outside responsibilities of unexpected magnitude, together with a failing health which culminated in my autumn sojourn at the Brooklyn Hospital, cut me off hopelessly from amateur work during the summer of 1924; a disastrous interregnum whose effects proved too profound to be shaken off during the balance of the year, especially since my energy and leisure have even since then been but fractional.

  Both Sonia and Lovecraft in his “Editorial” spoke of the apathy overtaking all amateurdom and the frequent talk of consolidating the UAPA and NAPA for the sake of preserving the amateur movement; and both felt that this should be done only as a last resort, and that the UAPA ought to maintain a separate existence if at all possible. To that end, Sonia declared that a mail election would be held on July 15, with the ballots to be sent out shortly. Sure enough, Lovecraft wrote to Lillian that on July 3 he folded, addressed, and mailed the entire lot of 200 ballots.[51]

  The results of the election were as follows: Edgar J. Davis, President; Paul Livingston Keil, First Vice-President; Grace M. Bromley, Second Vice-President. Davis appointed Victor E. Bacon Official Editor and (no doubt with additional cajoling from Lovecraft) Frank Long as chairman of the Department of Public Criticism. Lovecraft, hoping against hope, wrote to Moe that the Davis-Bacon tandem might somehow save the UAPA at the last moment:

  Don’t you think there’s a half-chance for the United to come back with two such cherubs as its leaders? With Davis’s brains, & Bacon’s restless egotism & energy to prod those brains into action, we certainly have a team whose possibilities are not to be sneez’d at. . . . [Bacon] stands a chance of rousing & getting together enough surviving “live ones” to resist the decadent tendencies of the age . . .; so that we may be able to postpone hiring the mortician for a year or two more.[52]

  Lovecraft accordingly spent the next several months attempting to get the board off the ground, but with indifferent success: a few slim issues of the United Amateur were indeed produced during 1925–26, but so far as I can tell no election was held in 1926, causing the association definitively to fold. I do not know how many other amateur journals were produced in this term; certainly Lovecraft had no intention of reviving his Conservative, even if he had had the finances to do so.

  During Sonia’s long stay Lovecraft did some travelling with her. The two of them went to Scott Park in Elizabeth on June 13. On the 28th they went to the Bryn Mawr Park section of Yonkers, where they had attempted to purchase the home lot the previous year; no account or explanation of this visit occurs in Lovecraft’s letters to his aunts. His diary notes laconically: “charm still present.” With Long, Lovecraft again visited the Cloisters in Fort Tryon Park, in the far northwest tip of Manhattan.

  On July 2 Sonia and Lovecraft took a trip to Coney Island, where he had cotton candy for the first time. On this occasion Sonia had a silhouette of herself made by an African American named Perry; Lovecraft had had his own silhouette done on March 26. This silhouette has become very well known in recent years, and its very faithful (perhaps even a little flattering) rendition has caused Lovecraft’s profile to become an icon; the silhouette of Sonia, on the other hand, is so little known that few have had any idea of its very existence.

  On July 16 the couple took a hiking trip to the New Jersey Palisades—the wooded, hilly region directly facing northern Manhattan across the Hudson River. This proved a very pleasant outing:

  . . . we began the zigzag ascent of the majestic precipice by means of a winding route partly identical with the wagon road, partly a footpath through the verdant twilight of forest steeps, & partly a stone stairway which at one point tunnels under the road. The crest, which we attained in about a half-hour, commands the noblest possible view of the Hudson & its eastern shore; & along this we rambled—coming now on a patch of woods, now on a grassy pasture, & now on a chasm bordered by the jutting bed rock of the plateau itself.[53]

  Lovecraft alternately read 5¢ Haldeman-Julius booklets and Stevenson’s Jekyll and Hyde. They had lunch (tongue and cheese sandwiches and peaches, followed by ice cream and lemonade secured from a nearby pavilion), then returned home by ferry and subway.

  Another thing Lovecraft and Sonia liked to do was to attend movies. Probably she was more interested in this form of entertainment than he was, but on occasion Lovecraft could become genuinely enthusiastic about a film that suited his tastes, either antiquarian or horrific. They were, of course, all silents at this time. In September he reports seeing The Phantom of the Opera:

  . . . what a spectacle it was!! It was about a presence haunting the great Paris opera house . . . but developed so slowly that I actually fell asleep several times during the first part. Then the second part began—horror lifted its grisly visage—& I could not have been made drowsy by all the opiates under heaven! Ugh!!! The face that was revealed when the mask was pulled off . . . & the nameless legion of things that cloudily appeared beside & behind the owner of that face when the mob chased him into the river at the last![54]

  His diary records a viewing of The Lost World (an adaptation of the Conan Doyle novel) on October 6, but there is no corresponding letter testifying to his reaction to this remarkable film, a landmark in the use of special effects in its depiction of dinosaurs in South America. On a solitary outing Lovecraft saw a stirring documentary of whaling days in New Bedford, Down to the Sea in Ships. “The whole film is of inestimable historical value as a minute & authentic record of a dying yet gorgeously glamorous phase of American life & adventure.”[55]

  On July 24 Sonia returned to Cleveland, but she made Lovecraft promise to attend the Blue Pencil Club meeting in Brooklyn that evening. In the morning Lovecraft had written his literary contribution—the light verse “A Year Off,” another fairly successful venture in vers de société. Lovecraft considers the possible choices for spending a year’s vacation—“I’d look up ferries on the Nile, / And ’bus fares for the trip to Mecca”; “Arranging passage thro’ Thibet / To dally with the Dalai Lama”—but concludes (somewhat predictably) that after this imaginative survey there is no need to go on the actual trip!

  Now that Sonia was out of the way and his amateur work apparently finished, Lovecraft felt that the time had come to buckle down to some real creative work. On August 1 and 2 he wrote “The Horror at Red Hook,” which he describes in a letter to Long (who was away on vacation) as follows: “. . . it deals with hideous cult-practices behind the gangs of noisy young loafers whose essential mystery has impressed me so much. The tale is rather long and rambling, and I don’t think it is very good; but it represents at least an attempt to extract horror from an atmosphere to which you deny any qualities save vulgar commonplaceness.”[56] Lovecraft is sadly correct in his analysis of the merits of the story, for it is one of the poorest of his longer efforts.

  Red Hook is a small peninsula of Brooklyn facing Governor’s Island, about two miles southwest of Borough Hall. Lovecraft could easily walk to the area from 169 Clinton Street, and indeed there is the laconic entry “Red Hook” in his diary for March 8, when he and Kleiner evidently strolled there. It was then and still remains one of the most dismal slums in the entire metropolitan area. In the story Lovecraft describes it not inaccurately, although with a certain jaundiced tartness:

  Red Hook is a maze of hybrid squalor near the ancient waterfront opposite Governor’s Island, with dirty highways cli
mbing the hill from the wharves to that higher ground where the decayed lengths of Clinton and Court Streets lead off toward the Borough Hall. Its houses are mostly of brick, dating from the first quarter of the middle of the nineteenth century, and some of the obscurer alleys and byways have that alluring antique flavour which conventional reading leads us to call “Dickensian”.

  Lovecraft is, indeed, being a little charitable (at least as far as present-day conditions are concerned), for I do not know of any quaint alleys there now. But of course it is not merely the physical decay that is of interest to him: “The population is a hopeless tangle and enigma; Syrian, Spanish, Italian, and negro elements impinging upon one another, and fragments of Scandinavian and American belts lying not far distant. It is a babel of sound and filth, and sends out strange cries to answer the lapping of oily waves at its grimy piers and the monstrous organ litanies of the harbour whistles.” Here, in essence, is the heart of the story; for “The Horror at Red Hook” is nothing but a shriek of rage and loathing at the “foreigners” who have taken New York away from the white people to whom it presumably belongs. The mention of Syrians is interesting, and may perhaps relate to one of Lovecraft’s neighbours at 169 Clinton, who played such strange music that it gave Lovecraft strange dreams; as he described it two years later, “once a Syrian had the room next to mine and played eldritch and whining monotones on a strange bagpipe which made me dream ghoulish and incredible things of crypts under Bagdad and limitless corridors of Eblis under the moon-cursed ruins of Istakhar.”[57] One would think Lovecraft would be grateful for such imaginative stimulus, but he does not appear to have been.

  Sonia in her memoir claims to supply the inspiration for the tale: “It was on an evening while he, and I think Morton, Sam Loveman and Rheinhart Kleiner were dining in a restaurant somewhere in Columbia Heights that a few rough, rowdyish men entered. He was so annoyed by their churlish behavior that out of this circumstance he wove ‘The Horror at Red Hook.’”[58] Lovecraft may have mentioned this event in a letter to her; but I am not entirely convinced that it was any one incident that gave birth to the story, but rather the cumulative depression of New York after a year and a half of poverty and futility.

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