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I am providence the life.., p.94

I Am Providence: The Life and Times of H. P. Lovecraft (2 VOLUMES), page 94


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

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  Cook has another imperishable account of Lovecraft’s settling in:

  I saw him in Providence on his return from New York and before he had his things all unpacked and his room settled, and he was without question the happiest man I ever saw—he could have posed for an “After Taking” picture for the medical ads. He had taken it and shown that he could take it. His touch was caressing as he put his things in place, a real love-light shone in his eyes as he glanced out of the window. He was so happy he hummed—if he had possessed the necessary apparatus he would have purred.[42]

  In his letter to Long he supplies a detailed plan of the large one-bedroom apartment with kitchen alcove:

  Further maps indicate what is on the walls, including a painting of a rose by his mother and other paintings (of a stag and a farmhouse), perhaps by Lillian, on the east wall (which also contains the door leading out of the apartment), the south wall entirely covered by bookshelves, and the west wall with its fireplace and mantelpiece. The house itself was built only around 1880, so it is by no means colonial; but it is a pleasing and spacious edifice. Like 598 Angell Street, it is a double house, the western half being 10 Barnes and the eastern half 12 Barnes. Lovecraft added further:

  The house is immaculately clean, & inhabited only by select persons of the good old families . . . The neighbourhood is perfect—all old Yankee Providence homes, with a good percentage of the houses colonial. . . . The vista from my pseudo-oriel desk corner is delectable—bits of antique houses, stately trees, urn-topp’d white Georgian fence, & an ecstatic old-fashion’d garden which will be breathlessly transporting in a couple of months.[43]

  The view has not changed much since Lovecraft’s day. The house, then as now, is a series of apartments.

  We do not know much of what Lovecraft was doing during the first few months of his return to Providence. In April, May, and June he reported seeing several parts of the city he had never seen before, at least once in the company of Annie Gamwell, who at this time was residing at the Truman Beckwith house at College and Benefit Streets. He expressed the wish to do more reading and collecting of Rhode Island matter, and claimed that a special corner of the reference room of the Providence Public Library would now be among his principal haunts.

  Providence enters into several of the tales he wrote in the year after his return; indeed, this period—from the summer of 1926 to the spring of 1927—represents the most remarkable outburst of fiction-writing in Lovecraft’s entire career. Only a month after leaving New York he wrote to Morton: “It is astonishing how much better the old head works since its restoration to those native scenes amidst which it belongs. As my exile progressed, even reading and writing became relatively slow and formidable processes . . .”[44] Now things were very different: two short novels, two novelettes, and three short stories, totalling some 150,000 words, were written at this time, along with a handful of poems and essays. All the tales are set, at least in part, in New England.

  First on the agenda is “The Call of Cthulhu,” written probably in August or September. This story had, of course, been plotted a full year earlier, as recorded in his diary entry for August 12–13, 1925: “Write out story plot—‘The Call of Cthulhu.’” The plot of this well-known tale does not need elaborate description. The subtitle, “(Found Among the Papers of the Late Francis Wayland Thurston, of Boston),” announces that the text is an account written by Thurston (who is otherwise not named in the text) of the strange facts he has assembled, both from the papers of his recently deceased grand-uncle, George Gammell Angell, and from personal investigation. Angell, a professor of Semitic languages at Brown University, had collected several peculiar pieces of data. First, he had taken extensive notes of the dreams and artwork of a young sculptor, Henry Anthony Wilcox, who had come to him with a bas-relief he had fashioned in his sleep on the night of March 1, 1925. The sculpture is of a hideous-looking alien entity, and Wilcox had reported that in the dream that had inspired it he had repeatedly heard the words “Cthulhu fhtagn.” It was this that had piqued Angell’s interest, for he had encountered these words or sounds years before, at a meeting of the American Archaeological Society, in which a New Orleans police inspector named John Raymond Legrasse had brought in a sculpture very much like Wilcox’s and claimed that it had been worshipped by a degraded cult in the Louisiana bayou which had chanted the phrase “Ph’nglui mglw’nafh Cthulhu R’lyeh wgah’nagl fhtagn.” One of the cult members had proffered a translation of this outlandish utterance: “In his house at R’lyeh dead Cthulhu waits dreaming.” Legrasse had also interviewed one cultist, a mestizo named Castro, who had told them that Cthulhu was a vast being that had come from the stars when the earth was young, along with another set of entities named the Great Old Ones; he was buried in the sunken city of R’lyeh and would emerge when the “stars were ready” to reclaim control of the earth. The cult “would always be waiting to liberate him.” Castro points out that these matters are spoken of in the Necronomicon of the mad Arab Abdul Alhazred.

  Thurston scarcely knows what to make of this bizarre material, but then by accident he finds a newspaper clipping telling of strange events aboard a ship in the Pacific Ocean; accompanying the article is a picture of another bas-relief very similar to that fashioned by Wilcox and found by Legrasse. Thurston goes to Oslo to talk with the Norwegian sailor, Gustaf Johansen, who had been on board the ship, but finds that he is dead. Johansen has, however, left behind an account of his experience, and this shows that he had actually encountered the dreaded Cthulhu when the city of R’lyeh rose from the sea-bottom as the result of an earthquake; but, presumably because the stars are not “ready,” the city sinks again, returning Cthulhu to the bottom of the ocean. But the mere existence of this titanic entity is an unending source of profound unease to Thurston because it shows how tenuous is mankind’s vaunted supremacy upon this planet.

  It is difficult to convey by this bald summary the rich texture of this substantial work: its implications of cosmic menace, its insidiously gradual climax, its complexity of structure and multitude of narrative voices, and the absolute perfection of its style—sober and clinical at the outset, but reaching at the end heights of prose-poetic horror that attain an almost epic grandeur. It is his best tale since “The Rats in the Walls”; and, like that tale, it has an assurance and maturity lacking in much of his early work, but which would be the hallmarks of much of the writing of his last decade.

  And yet, the origin of the tale goes back even beyond the evidently detailed plot-synopsis of 1925. Its kernel is recorded in an entry in his commonplace book (#25) that must date to 1920:

  Man visits museum of antiquities—asks that it accept a bas-relief he has just made—old & learned curator laughs & says he cannot accept anything so modern. Man says that

  ‘dreams are older than brooding Egypt or the contemplative Sphinx or garden-girdled Babylonia’

  & that he had fashioned the sculpture in his dreams. Curator bids him shew his product, & when he does so curator shews horror, asks who the man may be. He tells modern name. “No—before that” says curator. Man does not remember except in dreams. Then curator offers high price, but man fears he means to destroy sculpture. Asks fabulous price—curator will consult directors. ¶ Add good development & describe nature of bas-relief.

  This is, of course, the fairly literal encapsulation of a dream Lovecraft had in early 1920, which he describes at length in two letters of the period.[45] The entry has been quoted at length to give some idea of how tangential are the inspirational foci of some of Lovecraft’s tales. Only a small portion of this plot-kernel has made its way into the finished story—indeed, nothing is left except the mere fashioning of a strange bas-relief by a modern sculptor under the influence of dreams. And although Wilcox actually says to Angell the words in the entry, this utterance is now (rightly) dismissed by the narrator as “of a fantastically poetic cast which must have typified his whole conversation.”

  The fact that Wilcox fashioned the bas-r
elief in his dreams is a tip of the hat to the dominant literary influence on the tale, Guy de Maupassant’s “The Horla.” It is not likely that Lovecraft had read this tale when he had the dream in 1920 inspiring the commonplace book entry, but he no doubt read it well before writing “The Call of Cthulhu”: it is contained in both Joseph Lewis French’s Masterpieces of Mystery (1920) and in Julian Hawthorne’s Lock and Key Library (1909), the latter of which Lovecraft obtained on one of his New York trips of 1922. In “Supernatural Horror in Literature” he recognised that “The Horla” was Maupassant’s masterpiece of horror and wrote of it: “Relating the advent to France of an invisible being who lives on water and milk, sways the minds of others, and seems to be the vanguard of a horde of extra-terrestrial organisms arrived on earth to subjugate and overwhelm mankind, this tense narrative is perhaps without a peer in its particular department . . .” Cthulhu is not, of course, invisible, but the rest of the description tallies uncannily with the events of the story. Some of the reflections by Maupassant’s narrator, especially after he reads a book that relates “the history and the manifestations of all the invisible beings which haunt mankind or appear in dreams,” are potently cosmic:

  From reading this book I have the impression that man, ever since he has had the ability to think, has had the foreboding that a new creature would appear, someone stronger than himself, who would be his successor on earth. . . .

  . . . Who inhabits those far-away worlds? What forms of life, what kind of beings, what animals and plants live out there? And if there are thinking beings in those distant universes how much more do they know than we do? How much more can they do than we can? What things can they see which we do not even suspect? Just suppose that one of them were to travel through space one of these days and come to this earth to conquer it, rather like the Normans in the olden days crossing the sea to enslave weaker races!

  We are so feeble, so helpless, so ignorant, so tiny, we creatures on this whirling speck of mud and water . . .

  . . .

  Now I know. Now I can see the point. The rule of man has come to an end.[46]

  No wonder Lovecraft was so taken with this tale. And yet, it must frankly be admitted that Lovecraft himself handles the theme with vastly greater subtlety and richness than Maupassant.

  Robert M. Price points to another significant influence on the tale—theosophy.[47] The theosophical movement originated with Helena Petrovna Blavatsky, whose Isis Unveiled (1877) and The Secret Doctrine (1888–97) introduced this peculiar mélange of science, mysticism, and religion into the West. It would be cumbersome and profitless to give an elaborate account of theosophy; suffice it to say that its stories of such lost realms as Atlantis and Lemuria—derived from the supposedly ancient Book of Dzyan, of which The Secret Doctrine purports to be an immense commentary—fired Lovecraft’s imagination. He read W. Scott-Elliot’s The Story of Atlantis and the Lost Lemuria (1925; actually a compendium of two of Scott-Elliot’s books, The Story of Atlantis [1896] and The Lost Lemuria [1904]) in the summer of 1926,[48] and actually mentions the book in his tale; the theosophists are themselves mentioned in the second paragraph. Castro’s wild tale of the Great Old Ones makes allusions to cryptic secrets that “deathless Chinamen” told him—a nod to the theosophists’ accounts of Shamballah, the Tibetan holy city (the prototype of Shangri-La) whence the doctrines of theosophy are supposed to have originated. Lovecraft, of course, did not believe this nonsense; in fact, he has a little fun with it when he says: “Old Castro remembered bits of hideous legend that paled the speculations of theosophists and made man and the world seem recent and transient indeed.”

  Still another influence is “The Moon Pool,” a novelette by A. Merritt (1884–1943). Lovecraft frequently rhapsodised about this tale, which was first published in the All-Story for June 22, 1918, and which takes place on or near the island of Ponape, in the Carolines. Merritt’s mention of a “moon-door” that, when tilted, leads the characters into a lower region of wonder and horror seems similar to the huge door whose inadvertent opening by the sailors causes Cthulhu to emerge from R’lyeh.

  It may be worth dwelling briefly on the autobiographical features in the story before discussing the larger issues it raises. Some of these are superficial, scarcely above the level of in-jokes: the name of the narrator, Francis Wayland Thurston, is clearly derived from Francis Wayland (1796–1865), president of Brown University from 1827 to 1855; Gammell is a legitimate variant of Gamwell, while Angell is at once the name of one of the principal thoroughfares and one of the most distinguished families in the city; Wilcox is a name from Lovecraft’s ancestry;[49] and when Thurston finds the clipping about Johansen while “visiting a learned friend in Paterson, New Jersey; the curator of a local museum and a mineralogist of note,” we scarcely need be told that James F. Morton is being alluded to. (One false autobiographical detail is the mestizo Castro, whose name was believed to derive from Adolphe Danziger de Castro, the friend of Bierce’s who became Lovecraft’s revision client; but Lovecraft did not come into contact with de Castro until late 1927.[50])

  The residence of Wilcox at the Fleur-de-Lys building at 7 Thomas Street is a real structure, still standing; Lovecraft is correct in describing it scornfully as “a hideous Victorian imitation of seventeenth-century Breton architecture which flaunts its stuccoed front amidst the lovely colonial houses on the ancient hill, and under the very shadow of the finest Georgian steeple in America” (i.e., the First Baptist Church). The fact of Wilcox’s occupation of this structure would have an interesting sequel a few years later.

  The earthquake cited in the story is also a real event. There is no extant letter to Lillian for the precise period in question, but Lovecraft’s diary entry for February 28, 1925 tells the story: “G[eorge] K[irk] & S[amuel] L[oveman] call— . . . —house shakes 9:30 p m . . .” Steven J. Mariconda, who has written exhaustively on the genesis of the tale, notes: “In New York, lamps fell from tables and mirrors from walls; walls themselves cracked, and windows shattered; people fled into the street.”[51] It is of some note that the celebrated underwater city of R’lyeh, brought up by this earthquake, was first coined by Lovecraft as L’yeh.[52]

  “The Call of Cthulhu” is manifestly an exhaustive reworking of one of Lovecraft’s earliest stories, “Dagon” (1917). In that tale we have many nuclei of the later work—an earthquake that causes an undersea land mass to emerge to the surface; the notion of a titanic monster dwelling under the sea; and—although this is barely hinted in “Dagon”—the fact that an entire civilisation, hostile or at best indifferent to mankind, is lurking on the underside of our world. The last notion is also at the heart of Arthur Machen’s tales of the “little people,” and there is indeed a general Machen influence upon “The Call of Cthulhu”; especially relevant is “Novel of the Black Seal” (an episode in The Three Impostors), where Professor Gregg, like Thurston, pieces together disparate bits of information that by themselves reveal little but, when taken together, suggest an appalling horror awaiting the human race.

  “The Call of Cthulhu” presents the greatest structural complexity of any of Lovecraft’s tales written up to this point. It is one of the first tales to make extensive use of the narrative-within-a-narrative device—a device that ordinarily requires the novel for proper execution, but which Lovecraft utilises effectively here because of the extreme compression of the text. Lovecraft was, as a critic, aware of the aesthetic problems entailed by an improper or bungling use of the narrative within a narrative, in particular the danger of allowing the subnarrative to overwhelm the principal narrative and thereby destroy the unity of the tale as a whole. Of Maturin’s Melmoth the Wanderer he remarked in “Supernatural Horror in Literature” that the subnarrative of John and Monçada “takes up the bulk of Maturin’s four-volume book; this disproportion being considered one of the chief technical faults of the composition.” (Lovecraft expresses himself here in this rather tentative way because, as we have seen, he himself never read the entiret
y of Melmoth but only two anthology excepts of it.) The means to avoid structural awkwardness is to integrate the subsidiary narrative with the main narrative, specifically by allowing the protagonist of the main narrative to become intimately involved in the subsidiary one in some fashion or other. In “The Call of Cthulhu” we have a main narrator (Francis Wayland Thurston) paraphrasing the notes of a subsidiary narrator (George Gammell Angell) who himself paraphrases two accounts, that of the artist Wilcox and that of Inspector Legrasse, who paraphrases yet another subsidiary account, the tale of Old Castro; Thurston then comes upon a newspaper article and the Johansen narrative, items that confirm the truth of Angell’s accounts. This entire sequence can be depicted by the following chart of narrative voices:

  This structure never becomes clumsy because we are always aware of the presence of the principal narrator, who has both assembled the various other narratives and repeatedly comments upon them. It should be noted that the most “sensational” part of the story—Castro’s wild tale of the Great Old Ones—is three times removed from the principal narrative: Thurston—Angell—Legrasse—Castro. This is narrative “distance” with a vengeance! When Lovecraft commented in later years that he felt the story was “cumbrous,”[53] he was perhaps referring to this structural complexity—a complexity, however, that is undeniably effective in conveying with power and verisimilitude what is to be conveyed.

  But no analysis of “The Call of Cthulhu” can begin to convey the rich satisfaction one derives from reading it. From the celebratedly pensive opening (itself a radical refinement of the opening of “Facts concerning the Late Arthur Jermyn and His Family”)—

  The most merciful thing in the world, I think, is the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents. We live on a placid island of ignornace in the midst of black seas of infinity, and it was not meant that we should voyage far. The sciences, each straining in its own direction, have hitherto harmed us little; but some day the piecing together of dissociated knowledge will open up such terrifying vistas of reality, and of our frightful position therein, that we shall either go mad from the revelation or flee from the deadly light into the peace and safety of a new dark age.

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