I am providence the life.., p.88

I Am Providence: The Life and Times of H. P. Lovecraft (2 VOLUMES), page 88


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

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  And, of course, Lovecraft’s hostility was exacerbated by his increasingly shaky psychological state as he found himself dragging out a life in an unfamiliar, unfriendly city where he did not seem to belong and where he had little prospects for work or permanent comfort. Foreigners made convenient scapegoats, and New York City, then and now the most cosmopolitan and culturally heterogeneous city in the country, stood in stark contrast to the homogeneity and conservatism he had known in the first thirty-four years of his life in New England. The city that had seemed such a fount of Dunsanian glamour and wonder had become a dirty, noisy, overcrowded place that dealt repeated blows to his self-esteem by denying him a job in spite of his abilities and by forcing him to hole up in a seedy, mice-infested, crime-ridden dump where all he could do was write racist stories like “The Horror at Red Hook” as a safety-valve for his anger and despair.

  Lovecraft was, however, not finished with creative work. Eight days after writing the story, on August 10, he began a long, lone evening ramble that led through Greenwich Village to the Battery, then to the ferry to Elizabeth, which he reached at 7 A.M. He purchased a 10¢ composition book at a shop, went to Scott Park, and wrote a story:

  Ideas welled up unbidden, as never before for years, & the sunny actual scene soon blended into the purple & red of a hellish midnight tale—a tale of cryptical horrors among tangles of antediluvian alleys in Greenwich Village—wherein I wove not a little poetick description, & the abiding terror of him who comes to New-York as to a faery flower of stone & marble, yet finds only a verminous corpse—a dead city of squinting alienage with nothing in common either with its own past or with the background of America in general. I named it “He” . . .[77]

  It is interesting that in this instance Lovecraft had to leave New York in order to write about it; he had, according to his diary, first gone to Scott Park on June 13, and it became a favourite haunt. And if the above description sounds autobiographical, it is by design; for “He,” while much superior to “The Horror at Red Hook,” is as heart-wrenching a cry of despair as its predecessor—quite avowedly so. Its opening is celebrated:

  I saw him on a sleepless night when I was walking desperately to save my soul and my vision. My coming to New York had been a mistake; for whereas I had looked for poignant wonder and inspiration in the teeming labyrinths of ancient streets that twist endlessly from forgotten courts and squares and waterfronts to courts and squares and waterfronts equally forgotten, and in the Cyclopean modern towers and pinnacles that rise blackly Babylonian under waning moons, I had found instead only a sense of horror and oppression which threatened to master, paralyse, and annihilate me.

  The power of this passage, of course, does not depend upon knowledge of Lovecraft’s biography; but that knowledge will lend it an added poignancy in its transparent reflexion of Lovecraft’s own mental state. The narrator goes on to say how the gleaming towers of New York had first captivated him, but that

  Garish daylight shewed only squalor and alienage and the noxious elephantiasis of climbing, spreading stone where the moon had hinted of loveliness and elder magic; and the throngs of people that seethed through the flume-like streets were squat, swarthy strangers with hardened faces and narrow eyes, shrewd strangers without dreams and without kinship to the scenes about them, who could never mean aught to a blue-eyed man of the old folk, with the love of fair green lanes and white New England village steeples in his heart.

  Here is Lovecraft’s sociology of New York: the immigrants who have clustered there really have no “kinship” with it because the city was founded by the Dutch and the English, and these immigrants are of a different cultural heritage altogether. This sophism allows Lovecraft to conclude that “this city of stone and stridor is not a sentient perpetuation of Old New York as London is of Old London and Paris of Old Paris, but that it is in fact quite dead, its sprawling body imperfectly embalmed and infested with queer animate things which have nothing to do with it as it was in life.” The immigrants are now considered to be on the level of maggots.

  Why, then, does not the narrator flee from the place? He gains some comfort from wandering along the older portions of the town, but all he can say in accounting for his staying is that “I . . . refrained from going home to my people lest I seem to crawl back ignobly in defeat.” How faithful a reflection of Lovecraft’s sentiments this is, it is difficult to say; but I shall have occasion to refer to this passage at a later time, especially in connexion with Sonia’s response to it.

  The narrator, like Lovecraft, seeks out Greenwich Village in particular; and it is here, at two in the morning one August night, that he meets “the man.” This person has an anomalously archaic manner of speaking and is wearing similarly archaic attire, and the narrator takes him for a harmless eccentric; but the latter immediately senses a fellow antiquarian. The man leads him on a circuitous tour of old alleys and courtyards, finally coming to “the ivy-clad wall of a private estate,” where the man lives. Can this place be specified? At the end of the story the narrator finds himself “at the entrance of a little black court off Perry Street”; and this is all the indication we need to realise that this segment of the tale was clearly inspired by a very similar expedition Lovecraft took on August 29, 1924—a “lone tour of colonial exploration” that led to Perry Street, “in an effort to ferret out the nameless hidden court which the Evening Post had written up that day. . . . I found the place without difficulty, and enjoyed it all the more for having seen its picture. These lost lanes of an elder city have for me the utmost fascination . . .”[78] Lovecraft is referring to an article in the New York Evening Post for August 29, in a regular column entitled “Little Sketches About Town.” This column contained both a line drawing of the “lost lane” in Perry Street and a brief writeup: “Everything about it is lost—name, country, identification of any sort. Its most prominent feature, an old oil lamp by a pair of crooked cellar steps, looks as if it came, after many years of shipwrecked isolation, from the Isle of Lost Ships, and feels more helplessly out of place than it can express.”[79] A tantalising description indeed—no wonder Lovecraft promptly went out in search of it. He claimed to have found the lane or alley with ease; indeed, both the drawing and the mention in the article that the lane is on Perry Street past Bleecker make it quite clear that the reference is to what is now labelled 93 Perry Street, an archway that leads to a lane between three buildings still very much like that pictured in the article. What is more, according to an historical monograph on Perry Street, this general area was heavily settled by Indians (they had named it Sapohanican), and moreover, a sumptuous mansion was built in the block bounded by Perry, Charles, Bleecker, and West Fourth Streets sometime between 1726 and 1744, being the residence of a succession of wealthy citizens until it was razed in 1865.[80] Lovecraft almost certainly knew the history of the area, and he has deftly incorporated it into his tale.

  And yet, it is critical to the logic of the tale that the man’s residence itself cannot be found with ease. The man takes the narrator on a deliberately convoluted circuit that destroys the latter’s sense of direction—at one point the two of them “crawled on hands and knees through a low, arched passage of stone whose immense length and tortuous twistings effaced at last every hint of geographical location I had managed to preserve.” This action is vital to the incursion of fantasy, for in a story so otherwise realistic in its topography some zone of mystery is required for the unreal to be situated.

  There is one further tantalising autobiographical connexion—the fact that Lovecraft and Sonia, on an earlier voyage of exploration of the colonial parts of Greenwich Village earlier in August 1924, actually met an elderly gentleman who led them to certain hidden sites they would otherwise not have seen. Here is Lovecraft’s description:

  Falling into a conversation with the chrysostomic gentleman of leisure above-mention’d, we learned much of local history, including the fact that the houses in Milligan Court were originally put up in the late 1700’s by the M
ethodist Church, for the poorer but respectable families of the parish. Continuing his expositions, our amiable Mentor led us to a seemingly undistinguished door within the court, and through the dim hallway beyond to a back door. Whither he was taking us, we knew not; but upon emerging from the back door we paus’d in delighted amazement. There, excluded from the world on every side by sheer walls and house facades, was a second hidden court or alley, with vegetation growing here and there, and on the south side a row of simple Colonial doorways and small-pan’d windows!! . . . Beholding this ingulph’d and search-defying fragment of yesterday, the active imagination conjures up endless weird possibilities . . .[81]

  The resemblance to the perambulation of the narrator of “He” into the hidden courtyard is uncanny—even if there was no crawling on hands and knees. And the “weird possibilities” of the site were certainly conveyed powerfully to Lovecraft, even if their expression was delayed a full year.

  In the manor house the man begins to relate an account of his “ancestor,” who practised some sort of sorcery, in part from knowledge gained from the Indians in the area; later he conveniently killed them with bad rum, so that he alone now had the secret information he had extracted from them. What is the nature of this knowledge? The man leads the narrator to a window and, parting the curtains, reveals an idyllic rural landscape—it can only be the Greenwich of the eighteenth century, magically brought in front of his eyes. The narrator, stunned, asks harriedly, “Can you—dare you—go far?” In scorn the man parts the curtains again and this time shows him a sight of the future:

  I saw the heavens verminous with strange flying things, and beneath them a hellish black city of giant stone terraces with impious pyramids flung savagely to the moon, and devil-lights burning from unnumbered windows. And swarming loathsomely on aërial galleries I saw the yellow, squint-eyed people of that city, robed horribly in orange and red, and dancing insanely to the pounding of fevered kettle-drums, the clatter of obscene crotala, and the maniacal moaning of muted horns whose ceaseless dirges rose and fell undulantly like the waves of an unhallowed ocean of bitumen.

  It is not to be denied that there is a racialist element here also—the “yellow squint-eyed people” can be nothing more or less than Orientals, who have now apparently overrun the city either by conquest or (worse, in Lovecraft’s view) interbreeding with whites—but the image is compelling for all that. My feeling is that this scenario was derived from Lord Dunsany’s picaresque novel The Chronicles of Rodriguez (1922), in which Rodriguez and a companion make an arduous climb of a mountain to the house of a wizard, who in alternate windows unveils vistas of wars past and to come (the latter showing, of course, the titanic horrors of World War I, which lie far in the future from the mediaeval period in which the novel takes place).[82]

  If Lovecraft had ended the tale here, it would have been a notable success; but he had the bad judgment to add a pulpish ending whereby the spirits of the murdered Indians, manifesting themselves in the form of a black slime, burst in on the pair and make off with the archaic man (who, of course, is himself the “ancestor”), while the narrator falls absurdly through successive floors of the building and then crawls out to Perry Street. It would still be a few years before Lovecraft would learn sufficient restraint to avoid bathos of this sort.

  The final lines of the story are again poignant from an autobiographical perspective: “Whither he has gone, I do not know; but I have gone home to the pure New England lanes up which fragrant sea-winds sweep at evening.” Thomas Malone of “The Horror at Red Hook” is sent to Chepachet, Rhode Island, on a vacation to recover from the shock of his ordeal; but here the narrator returns permanently to his home, and a more pitiable instance of wish-fulfilment would be hard to find. Nonetheless, “He” remains a quietly powerful tale for its brooding prose and its apocalyptic visions of a crazed future; and it is as tormented a cry from the heart as Lovecraft ever wrote.

  Farnsworth Wright accepted “He,” along with “The Cats of Ulthar,” in early October, and it appeared in Weird Tales for September 1926. Strangely enough, Lovecraft had not yet submitted “The Shunned House” to Wright, but when he did so (probably in early September), Wright eventually turned it down on the grounds that it began too gradually.[83] Lovecraft did not make any notable comment on this rejection, even though it was the first rejection he had ever had from Weird Tales and the first (but by no means the last) that Farnsworth Wright had given. He spoke of retyping several earlier stories for Wright, and did send a batch of them in late September, and another batch in early October. Wright was also talking of compiling a volume of stories from Weird Tales, which would include “The Rats in the Walls”;[84] but nothing came of this. The Popular Fiction Publishing Company did publish one book in 1927—The Moon Terror, with stories by A. G. Birch, Anthony M. Rud, Vincent Starrett, and Wright himself, all from early issues of Weird Tales—but it was such a commercial disaster that no more books of the sort were issued.

  The writing of “He,” however, did not put an entire end to Lovecraft’s fictional efforts. The Kalem meeting on Wednesday, August 12, broke up at 4 A.M.; Lovecraft immediately went home and mapped out “a new story plot—perhaps a short novel” which he titled “The Call of Cthulhu.”[85] Although he confidently reported that “the writing itself will now be a relatively simple matter,” it would be more than a year before he would write this seminal story. It is a little sad to note how Lovecraft attempted to justify his state of chronic unemployment by suggesting to Lillian that a lengthy story of this sort “ought to bring in a very decent sized cheque”; he had earlier noted that the projected Salem novelette or novel, “if accepted, would bring in a goodly sum of cash.”[86] It is as if he was desperately seeking to convince Lillian that he was not a drain on her (and Sonia’s) finances in spite of his lack of a regular position and his continual cafeteria-lounging with the boys.

  Sometime in August Lovecraft received a plot idea from C. W. Smith, editor of the Tryout. The idea is spelled out in a letter to Clark Ashton Smith: “. . . an undertaker imprisoned in a village vault where he was removing winter coffins for spring burial, & his escape by enlarging a transom reached by the piling-up of the coffins.”[87] This does not sound very promising; and the mere fact that Lovecraft chose to write it up at this time, even with the addition of a supernatural element, may suggest the relative impoverishment of his creative imagination in the atmosphere of New York. The resulting tale, “In the Vault,” written on September 18, is poorer than “He” but not quite as horrendously bad as “The Horror at Red Hook”; it is merely mediocre.

  George Birch is the careless and thick-skinned undertaker of Peck Valley, an imaginary town somewhere in New England. On one occasion he finds himself trapped in the receiving-tomb—where coffins ready for burial are being stored for the winter, until the ground is soft enough to dig—by the slamming of the door in the wind and the breaking of the neglected latch. Birch realises that the only way to get out of the tomb is to pile the eight coffins up like a pyramid and get out through the transom. Although working in the dark, he is confident that he has piled up the coffins in the sturdiest possible manner; in particular, he is certain that he has placed the well-made coffin of the diminutive Matthew Fenner on the very top, rather than the flimsy coffin he had initially built for Fenner but which he later decided to use for the tall Asaph Sawyer, a vindictive man whom he had not liked in life. Ascending his “miniature Tower of Babel,” Birch finds that he has to knock out some of the bricks around the transom in order for his large body to escape. As he is doing this, his feet fall through the top coffin and into the decaying contents within. He feels horrible pains in his ankles—they must be splinters or loose nails—but he manages to heave his body out the window and upon the ground. He cannot walk—his Achilles tendons have been cut—but he drags himself to the cemetery lodge, where he is rescued.

  Later Dr Davis examines his wounds and finds them very unnerving. Going back to the receiving-tomb, he learns the
truth: Asaph Sawyer was too big to fit into Matthew Fenner’s coffin, so Birch had phlegmatically cut off Asaph’s feet at the ankles to make the body fit; but he had not reckoned on Asaph’s inhuman vengeance. The wounds in Birch’s ankles are teeth marks.

  This is nothing more than a commonplace tit-for-tat supernatural vengeance story. Clark Ashton Smith charitably wrote that “‘In the Vault’ . . . has the realistic grimness of Bierce”;[88] there may well be a Bierce influence on this tale, but Bierce wrote nothing quite so simple-minded as this. Lovecraft attempts to write in a more homespun, colloquial vein—even going so far as to say, disingenuously, “Just where to begin Birch’s story I can hardly decide, since I am no practiced teller of tales”—but the result is not successful. August Derleth developed an unfortunate fondness for this tale, so that it still stands embalmed among volumes of Lovecraft’s “best” stories.

  The tale’s immediate fortunes were not very happy, either. Lovecraft dedicated the story to C. W. Smith, “from whose suggestion the central situation is taken,” and it appeared in Smith’s Tryout for November 1925. It was the last time that he would allow a new story (as opposed to an older, professionally rejected story) to appear first in an amateur journal. Of course Lovecraft also sought professional publication; and although it would seem that “In the Vault,” in its limited scope and conventionally macabre orientation, would be ready-made for Weird Tales, Wright rejected it in November. The reason for the rejection, according to Lovecraft, is interesting: “its extreme gruesomeness would not pass the Indiana censorship.”[89] The reference, of course, is to the banning of Eddy’s “The Loved Dead,” as Lovecraft makes clear in a later letter: “Wright’s rejection of [“In the Vault”] was sheer nonsense—I don’t believe any censor would have objected to it, but ever since the Indiana senate took action about poor Eddy’s ‘Loved Dead’, he has been in a continual panic about censorship.”[90] Here then is the first—but not the last—instance where the apparent uproar over “The Loved Dead,” however much or little it may have helped “rescue” Weird Tales in 1924, had a negative impact upon Lovecraft.

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