I am providence the life.., p.9
I Am Providence: The Life and Times of H. P. Lovecraft (2 VOLUMES), page 9
“The Little Glass Bottle” tells of a ship commanded by a Captain William Jones which comes upon a bottle with a message in it (perhaps one is to infer the influence of Poe’s “MS. Found in a Bottle” here). This note—written in a very wild and hasty hand on Lovecraft’s autograph manuscript (a crude but effective attempt at realism)—announces the writer as John Jones (no relation to the captain, one imagines) and says that there is a treasure to be found on the spot marked with an asterisk on the reverse of the note (here we find a crude map of the Indian Ocean, with a nebulous land mass labelled “Austrailia” at the bottom left). This note is dated January 1, 1864.
Captain Jones decides that “it would pay to go” to the spot, and the crew do so. There they find another note from John Jones: “Dear Searcher excuse me for the practical joke I have played on you but it serves you right to find nothing for your foolish act . . .” But John kindly defrays their expenses with an iron box containing “$25.0.00,” whatever that is. It is after reading this note (which, for some reason, is dated December 3, 1880) that Captain Jones delivers the one funny line in the entire story: “I’d like to kick his head off.”
None of these early stories is dated, with the exception of “The Mysterious Ship” (clearly dated to 1902), but they must have been written during the period 1898–1902, perhaps more toward the earlier than the later end of that spectrum. Lovecraft almost never speaks of “The Secret Cave”; it is easily the slightest of the juvenile tales. Mrs Lee instructs her son, ten-year-old John, and daughter, two-year-old Alice, to be “good children” while both parents are “going off for the day”; but immediately upon their departure John and Alice go down to the cellar and begin “to rummage among the rubbish.” Alice leans against a wall and it suddenly gives way behind her; a passage is discovered. John and Alice enter the passage, coming successively upon a large empty box, a small, very heavy box that is not opened, and a boat with oars. The passage comes to an abrupt end; John pulls away “the obstacle” and finds a torrent of water rushing in. John is a good swimmer, but little Alice is not, and she drowns. John manages to struggle into the boat, clinging to the body of his sister and the small box. Suddenly he realises that “he could shut off the water”; he does so, although how he does it—and why he did not think of it earlier—is never explained. “It was very gruesome & uncanny absolutely dark his candle being put out by the flood & a dead body lying near.” Finally he reaches the cellar. Later it is discovered that the box contains a solid gold chunk worth $10,000—“enough to pay for any thing but the death of his sister.”
I have no idea of the purpose of this unpleasantly gruesome little story. Lovecraft apparently wrote it with great haste, making many grammatical errors and occasionally even failing to capitalise the proper noun “Alice.” “They” is frequently rendered as “the.” I shall not speculate on the existence of a sister in the story: the tale does not seem especially autobiographical, so one cannot infer that Lovecraft was somehow wanting a sister. Again, no discernible influence from Poe or anyone else can be found.
Of “The Mystery of the Grave-yard”—which contains not only a subtitle (“or, ‘A Dead Man’s Revenge’“) but a sub-subtitle (“A Detective story”)—rather more may be said. This is the longest of Lovecraft’s juvenile stories, and at the end of the autograph manuscript he has noted (obviously at a much later date): “Evidently written in late 1898 or early 1899.” The fact that it is labelled a detective story should not lead us to think it is influenced by Poe’s “The Murders in the Rue Morgue” or any of his other detective stories, although no doubt Lovecraft read them; he also (as I shall discuss later) read the early Sherlock Holmes stories and could conceivably have read them at this early date. But even the most cursory glance at this wild, histrionic, and rather engaging story should allow us to point to its predominant source: the dime novel.
The first dime novel was published in 1860, when the firm later known as Beadle & Adams reprinted, in a 128-page paper-covered volume 6 × 4 inches in dimensions, Ann Sophia Winterbotham Stephens’s Malaeska: The Indian Wife of the White Hunter. The fact that it was a reprint was critical, for it allowed the firm to claim that here was a “dollar book for a dime.” Beadle & Adams was the leading publisher of dime novels until it folded in 1898, having been driven out of business by the bold and innovative publishing practices of Street & Smith, which entered the dime novel market in 1889. Frank Tousey was a lesser publisher of dime novels.
It should not be assumed that dime novels were merely action thrillers, although many of them were; there were westerns (Deadwood Dick from Beadle & Adams; Diamond Dick from Street & Smith), detective or espionage stories (Nick Carter from Street & Smith; Old King Brady from Frank Tousey), tales of high school and college life (Frank Merriwell from Street & Smith), and even pious tales of moral uprightness (Horatio Alger, Jr, wrote prolifically for Street & Smith in the 1890s). Their principal feature was their price, their format (paper covers, 128 pages or less), and, in general, their action-packed narrative style. The leading dime novel series were, of course, priced at 10¢, although there was a wide array of smaller books, called “nickel libraries,” at 5¢ aimed at younger readers.
It is one of the great paradoxes of Lovecraft’s entire literary career that he could, on the one hand, absorb the highest aesthetic fruits of Western culture—Greek and Latin literature, Shakespeare, the poetry of Keats and Shelley—and at the same time go slumming in the cheapest dregs of popular fiction. Throughout his life Lovecraft vigorously defended the literary value of the weird tale (unlike some modern critics who misguidedly vaunt both the good and the bad, the aesthetically polished and the mechanically hackneyed, as representative of “popular culture”—as if literary merit is determined by what masses of half-literate people like to read), and he adamantly (and rightly) refused to consider the weird work found in dime novels and pulp magazines as genuine literature; but this did not prevent him from voraciously lapping up these lesser products. Lovecraft knew that he was reading trash, but he read it anyway.
It has become fashionable to find literary—as opposed to sociological—value in dime novels by maintaining that they (and popular fiction generally) were read by all classes of society; Edmund Pearson, writing in 1929, already initiated this tendency by concluding his study with accounts by eminent literati of the day (Booth Tarkington, Samuel Hopkins Adams, Marc Connelly, William Lyon Phelps) who read and enjoyed dime novels in their youth. But the brute fact is that the dime and nickel novels were read primarily by the young, the poor, and the ill-educated. The literary formulae they inculcated—thrilling action at all cost and in spite of all probability and verisimilitude; “cliffhanger” conclusions to chapters; stereotyped character portrayal; stilted dialogue; a highly stylised and mechanical structure—were the worst possible influences on anyone wishing to write serious literature, and were all repudiated by Lovecraft by the time he developed a critical awareness of the distinction between good and bad writing. By then, however, he had already read so much of this material—and its descendants, the pulp magazines—that, as he himself correctly detected, his own style became, in small part, insidiously corrupted by their example.
Lovecraft does not go out of his way to mention to his correspondents that he read dime novels, but every now and then the confession slips through. In 1935 he writes: “If I had kept all the nickel novels—Pluck & Luck, Brave & Bold, Frank Reade, Jesse James, Nick Carter, Old King Brady, &c.—which I surreptitiously read 35 years ago . . ., I could probably get a young fortune for ’em today!” This comment, if interpreted literally, would date Lovecraft’s reading of dime or nickel novels to 1900, but in fact it must have occurred earlier. Pluck and Luck (Tousey) began publication in 1898; Brave and Bold (Street & Smith) in 1903; Frank Reade made his debut in the Frank Reade Library (Tousey, 1892–98) and then continued in the Frank Reade Weekly beginning in 1903; Jesse James Stories (Street & Smith) began in 1901; the first Nick Carter stories appeared in the Ne
Old King Brady may be the most interesting of the lot for our purposes, since the hero of “The Mystery of the Grave-yard” is one King John, described as “a famous western detective.” Old King Brady was not a Western character, but he was a detective. Most of the early Old King Brady novels were written by Francis Worcester Doughty; many appear—like “The Mystery of the Grave-yard”—to have contained suggestions of the supernatural. If Lovecraft continued to read Secret Service, we may find a connexion with some books in his library: La Fayette Charles Baker’s History of the United States Secret Service (1868) and William Pittenger’s Capturing a Locomotive: A History of the Secret Service During the Late War (1885). Perhaps he read these at this time also. Moreover, Beadle had a series detective, Prince John (written by Joseph E. Badger, Jr), in the early 1890s. I do not know whether King John—even in terms of his name—is some sort of fusion of Old King Brady and Prince John, but he is certainly a dime novel detective.
And “The Mystery of the Grave-yard” is a miniature dime novel, pure and simple. The fact is trumpeted even in its subtitle, which copies the “or . . .” subtitles of all the early dime and nickel novels. The action is nothing if not fast-paced. In twelve relatively short chapters (some as little as 50 words in length) we read the following lurid story:
Joseph Burns has died. The rector, Mr Dobson, is instructed by Burns’s will to drop a ball in his tomb at a spot marked “A.” He does so and disappears. A man named Bell announces himself at the residence of Dobson’s daughter, saying that he will restore her father for the sum of £10,000. The daughter, thinking fast, calls the police and cries, “Send King John!” King John, arriving in a flash, finds that Bell has jumped out the window. He chases Bell to the train station, but unfortunately Bell gets on a train as it is pulling out of the station; still more regrettably (and implausibly), there is no telegraph service between the town of Mainville, where the action is taking place, and the “large city” of Kent, where the train is headed. King John rushes to a hackney cab office and says to a black hackman that he will give him two dollars (even though pounds were mentioned before) if he can get him to Kent in fifteen minutes. Bell arrives in Kent, meets with his band of desperadoes (which includes a woman named Lindy), and is about to depart with them on a ship with King John dramatically arrives, declaring: “John Bell, I arrest you in the Queen’s name!” At the trial, it is revealed that Dobson had fallen down a trap-door at the spot marked “A” and had been kept in a “brilliantly lighted, and palatial apartment” until he rescues himself by making a wax impression of the key to the door and makes a dramatic entrance at the trial. Bell is sent to prison for life; Miss Dobson, “by the way,” has become Mrs King John.
There is much of interest in this story. In the first place, at the very beginning there is a hint of supernaturalism in the sudden disappearance of Dobson, although it should be obvious to even a casual reader that this is only the result of some sort of trickery. In later years Lovecraft chided Ann Radcliffe in particular for suggesting the supernatural only to explain it by implausible natural means; in his own mature fiction he was careful never to make that mistake.
In this tale Lovecraft is learning, clumsily, to maintain several narrative threads at once. This is somewhat crudely displayed by the successive openings of chapters four, five, and six: “Now let us return to the Dobson Mansion”; “Now let us return to the station house”; “Now let us return To the Dobson Mansion again.” The plot is actually quite complex, and one must wait till almost the last chapter for all the subsidiary mysteries to be cleared up.
It should already be evident from the synopsis that the tale is histrionic and sensational. At the end of chapter three a man shouts, “Oh! Terrors! Come To the Graveyard!” At the end of chapter eight (soberly marked “Long” at the right margin—it is a full 200 words in length) there is a dramatic one-sentence paragraph—“It was King John”—as he suddenly appears at the wharf to foil the escape of the miscreants. Italics are used liberally throughout the story, and when Dobson dramatically appears at the trial, we are made aware of “The figure of Mr Dobson Himself ” (the last word printed in very large letters with triple underscoring).
Perhaps the most interesting feature is the use of the “negro hackman.” He speaks in classic (or hackneyed) black dialect: “‘I doan’ see how I’m ter git there’, said the negro ‘I hab’n’t got a decent pair of hosses an’ I hab—’” This sort of dialect was much used in dime novels, and Lovecraft would of course elaborate upon it greatly in his later work.
The 1902 catalogue of works (found at the end of Poemata Minora, Volume II) lists the following works of fiction: “The Mysterious Ship” (25¢), “The Noble Eavesdropper” (10¢), “The Haunted House” (10¢), “The Secret of the Grave” (25¢), and “John, the Detective” (10¢). It is interesting to note that “The Noble Eavesdropper” is still extant (and for sale) at this time, and still more interesting to note the absence of “The Little Glass Bottle” and “The Secret Cave”; has Lovecraft already “repudiated” these stories, as he would successively do in later years with many of his earlier works? If so, it is remarkable that he has not yet repudiated “The Noble Eavesdropper,” which one would imagine was even cruder, being his first story.
“The Secret of the Grave” is something of a mystery, and I suspect that it is simply a variant title (or slip of the pen) for “The Mystery of the Grave-yard.” In a 1931 letter Lovecraft writes: “I do . . . have copies of some 8-year-old junk which my mother saved—‘The Mysterious Ship’ & ‘The Secret of the Grave.’” The fact that “The Secret of the Grave” is listed at 25¢ suggests that it is a relatively lengthy work; and “The Mystery of the Grave-yard” is Lovecraft’s longest surviving juvenile tale, far longer than “The Mysterious Ship.”
“John, the Detective” is presumably another tale about King John. “The Haunted House” may perhaps be Lovecraft’s first authentically supernatural tale, although if it were in the dime or nickel novel tradition it may have only hinted at the supernatural but explained it away. Indeed, it is interesting to note that of all these tales, only “The Noble Eavesdropper” can genuinely be assumed to be a horror tale; “The Little Glass Bottle” is a humorous story, “The Secret Cave” is a sort of grim domestic tale, and “The Mystery of the Grave-yard,” “The Mysterious Ship,” and presumably “John, the Detective” are mystery or suspense stories with only a faintly horrific atmosphere.
“The Mysterious Ship” is the latest of the surviving juvenilia, and by far the most disappointing. This little story—consisting of nine very brief chapters, some as short as 25 words and none longer than 75 words—is so dry and clipped that it led L. Sprague de Camp to think it “an outline rather than a story.” This seems unlikely given the elaborate “publishing” procedures Lovecraft has undertaken for this work. In the first place, we here encounter Lovecraft’s first surviving typescript, a text of twelve pages enclosed in a little booklet. This could not have been typed on the 1906 Remington that served Lovecraft for the rest of his life, but must have been some similar behemoth belonging to his grandfather or perhaps even his father. Moreover, there is a sort of gauze cloth cover with a drawing of a ship in pen on it, and another drawing of a ship on the back cover. The imprint on the title page is “The Royal Press. 1902.”
It is obvious, then, that Lovecraft is aiming for a sort of dramatic terseness in this narrative; but the result is mere boredom and even confusion as to what exactly happens. The tale is unambiguously non-supernatural: we are never expected to believe that the disappearance of random individuals shortly after the docking of a “strange brig” at various ports is anything but a species of kidnapping. This ship goes all over the world—a place (presumably in the United States) c
A strange document that has recently come to light is what appears to be a revised or elaborated version of “The Mysterious Ship.” This item was collected by August Derleth and transcribed along with several other now otherwise lost juvenile items, mostly astronomical treatises. This version of the story fleshes out each chapter to about 75 to 100 words each, so that the total is about 1000 words, more than twice the length of the original. Derleth dated this version to 1898, but this cannot be correct, as it cannot possibly predate the shorter version.
What is so disappointing about either version of “The Mysterious Ship” is the utter lack of progress it reveals from Lovecraft’s earlier juvenilia. If “The Mystery of the Grave-yard” is at least entertaining as a blood-and-thunder dime novel, “The Mysterious Ship” is simply tiresome and silly. It actually represents a regression in terms of plot development and narrative skill. How Lovecraft could have written the very able “The Beast in the Cave” three years later is a complete mystery. And yet, given that Lovecraft priced “The Mysterious Ship” at 25¢, one must believe that he actually saw some merit in the tale, at least at the time.
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