I am providence the life.., p.96

I Am Providence: The Life and Times of H. P. Lovecraft (2 VOLUMES), page 96


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

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  No reader is likely to have failed to predict this conclusion, but the tale is more interesting not for its actual plot but for its setting and its aesthetics. The North End setting is—or, rather, was—portrayed quite faithfully, right down to many of the street names; but, less than a year after writing the story, Lovecraft was disappointed to find that much of the area had been razed to make way for new development. But the tunnels he describes are real: they probably date from the colonial period and may have been used for smuggling.[63] Lovecraft captures the atmosphere of hoary decay vividly, and in so doing he enunciates (through Pickman) his own views on the need for a long-established cultural heritage:

  “God, man! Don’t you realise that places like that [the North End] weren’t merely made, but actually grew? Generation after generation lived and felt and died there, and in days when people weren’t afraid to live and feel and die. . . . No, Thurber, these ancient places are dreaming gorgeously and overflowing with wonder and terror and escapes from the commonplace, and yet there’s not a living soul to understand or profit by them.”

  But “Pickman’s Model” states other views close to Lovecraft’s heart. In effect, it expresses, in fictionalised form, many of the aesthetic principles on weird fiction that Lovecraft had just outlined in “Supernatural Horror in Literature.” When Thurber declares that “any magazine-cover hack can splash paint around wildly and call it a nightmare or a Witches’ Sabbath or a portrait of the devil,” he is repeating the many censures found in letters about the need for artistic sincerity and a knowledge of the true foundations of fear in the production of weird art. Thurber continues: “. . . only the real artist knows the actual anatomy of the terrible or the physiology of fear—the exact sort of lines and proportions that connect up with latent instincts or hereditary memories of fright, and the proper colour contrasts and lighting effects to stir the dormant sense of strangeness.” This statement, mutatis mutandis, is Lovecraft’s ideal of weird literature as well. And when Thurber confesses that “Pickman was in every sense—in conception and in execution—a thorough, painstaking, and almost scientific realist,” it is as if Lovecraft is reiterating his own recent abandonment of the Dunsanian prose-poetic technique for the “prose realism” that would be the hallmark of his later work.

  “Pickman’s Model,” however, suffers from several flaws aside from its rather obvious plot. Thurber, although supposedly a “tough” guy who had been through the world war, expresses implausible horror and shock at Pickman’s paintings: his reactions seem strained and hysterical, and make the reader think that he is not at all as hardened as he repeatedly claims he is. And the colloquial style is—as is the case with “In the Vault”—simply not suited to Lovecraft, and it is well that he subsequently abandoned it except for his ventures into New England dialect.

  I have remarked that “The Call of Cthulhu” was rejected by Farnsworth Wright of Weird Tales; Lovecraft gives little indication of Wright’s reasons aside from reporting casually that Wright thought the tale “slow”;[64] there is no suggestion that Wright felt it too bold or outré for his readership. It is, nevertheless, predictable that Wright would snap up the more conventional “Pickman’s Model,” publishing it in the October 1927 issue.

  Interestingly enough, in late August 1926 Lovecraft submitted three tales to Ghost Stories—“In the Vault” and two others that he does not specify (they were probably “Cool Air” and “The Nameless City”).[65] As with his submissions to Detective Tales, Lovecraft was attempting to secure another professional market aside from Weird Tales; perhaps the rejections of “The Shunned House” and “Cool Air” (“The Call of Cthulhu” was not rejected until October) were already beginning to rankle. Ghost Stories (1926–32) was, however, a very peculiar market for Lovecraft to approach: although it paid 2¢ a word,[66] it consisted largely of obviously fabricated “true-confession” accounts of encounters with ghostly phenomena, illustrated by equally contrived and doctored photographs. It did eventually publish random tales by Agatha Christie, Carl Jacobi, and a few other notables; Frank Long actually managed to sell a story to it (“The Man Who Died Twice” in the January 1927 issue), as did Lovecraft’s later colleague Robert E. Howard. At this time it was not a pulp magazine, being issued in a large bedsheet format on slick paper. Lovecraft did in fact read a few issues; but he noted accurately: “It hasn’t improved—& is about as poor as a magazine can be.”[67] But it paid 2¢ a word! Alas, all three of Lovecraft’s submissions not surprisingly came back.

  Lovecraft was doing more than writing original fiction; he was no doubt continuing to make a meagre living by revision, and in the process was slowly attracting would-be weird writers who offered him stories for correction. He had done no work of this kind since revising four tales for C. M. Eddy, Jr, in 1923–24, but now in the summer of 1926 his new friend Wilfred B. Talman came to him with a story entitled “Two Black Bottles.” Lovecraft found promise in the tale—Talman, let us recall, was only twenty-two at this time, and writing was by no means his principal creative outlet—but felt that changes were in order. By October the tale was finished, more or less to both writers’ satisfaction. The end result is nothing to write home about, but it managed to land with Weird Tales and appeared in the August 1927 issue.

  “Two Black Bottles” is the first-person account of a man named Hoffman who comes to examine the estate of his uncle, Dominie Johannes Vanderhoof, who has just died. Vanderhoof was the pastor of the small town of Daalbergen in the Ramapo Mountains (located in northern New Jersey and extending into New York State), and strange tales were told of him. He had fallen under the influence of an aged sexton, Abel Foster, and had taken to delivering fiery and daemoniac sermons to an ever-dwindling congregation. Hoffman, investigating the matter, finds Foster in the church, drunk but also frightened. Foster tells a strange tale of the first pastor of the church, Dominie Guilliam Slott, who in the early eighteenth century had amassed a collection of esoteric volumes and appeared to practise some form of daemonology. Foster reads these books himself and follows in Slott’s footsteps—to the point that, when Vanderhoof dies, he takes his soul from his body and puts it in a little black bottle. But Vanderhoof, now caught between heaven and hell, rests uneasily in his grave, and there are indications that he is trying to emerge from it. Hoffman, scarcely knowing what to make of this wild story, now sees the cross on Vanderhoof’s grave tilting perceptibly. Then seeing two black bottles on the table near Foster, he reaches for one of them, and in a scuffle with Foster one of them breaks. Foster shrieks: “I’m done fer! That one in there was mine! Dominie Slott took it out two hundred years ago!” Foster’s body crumbles rapidly into dust.

  This tale is not entirely ineffective, and it actually works up a convincing atmosphere of clutching horror toward the end, largely via the colloquial patois of Foster’s account. What is in question is the exact degree of Lovecraft’s role in the shaping and writing of the story. Judging from his letters to Talman, it seems clear that Lovecraft has not only written some of the tale—especially the portions in dialect—but also made significant suggestions regarding its structure. Talman had evidently sent Lovecraft both a draft and a synopsis—or, perhaps, a draft of only the beginning and a synopsis of the rest. Lovecraft recommended a simplification of the structure so that all the events are seen through the eyes of Hoffman. In terms of the diction, Lovecraft writes: “As for what I’ve done to the MS.—I am sure you’ll find nothing to interfere with your sense of creation. My changes are in virtually every case merely verbal, and all in the interest of finish and fluency of style.”[68]

  In his 1973 memoir Talman reveals some irritation at Lovecraft’s revisions: “He did some minor gratuitous editing, particularly of dialog . . . After re-reading it in print, I wish Lovecraft hadn’t changed the dialog, for his use of dialect was stilted.”[69] I think Talman’s irritation has led him to downplay Lovecraft’s role in the work, for there are many passages beyond the dialect portions that clearly reveal his hand. “Tw
o Black Bottles”—like many of Lovecraft’s later revisions—is just the sort of conventional horror tale that Farnsworth Wright liked, and it is not surprising that he readily accepted it while rejecting Lovecraft’s own more challenging work.

  A revision job of a very different sort on which Lovecraft worked in October was The Cancer of Superstition. Not much is known about this project, but it appears to have been a collaborative revision on which Lovecraft and C. M. Eddy worked at the instigation of Harry Houdini. Houdini performed in Providence in early October, at which time he asked Lovecraft to do a rush job—an article attacking astrology—for which he paid $75.00.[70] This article has not come to light; but perhaps it supplied the nucleus for what was apparently to be a full-length polemic against superstitions of all sorts. Houdini had, of course, himself written several works of this kind—including A Magician among the Spirits (1924), a copy of which he gave to Lovecraft with an inscription—but he now wished something with more scholarly rigour.

  What survives of The Cancer of Superstition is an outline by Lovecraft and the opening pages of the book as written from the outline by Eddy. The outline predictably speaks of the origin of superstition in primitive times (“All superstitions & religious ideas due to primitive man’s effort to assign causes for the natural phenomena around him”), drawing specifically upon Fiske’s Myths and Myth-Makers and Frazer’s Golden Bough as support. The surviving chapter is clearly by Eddy; I see little of Lovecraft’s actual prose in it, although no doubt many of the facts cited in it were supplied by him.

  But Houdini’s sudden death on October 31 put an end to the endeavour, as Houdini’s wife did not wish to pursue it. This may have been just as well, for the existing material is undistinguished and largely lacks the academic support a work of this kind needs. Lovecraft may have been well versed in anthropology for a layman, but neither he nor Eddy had the scholarly authority to bring this venture to a suitable conclusion.

  Shortly after the writing of “Pickman’s Model,” something strange occurred—Lovecraft was back in New York. He arrived no later than Monday, September 13, for he spoke of seeing a cinema with Sonia that evening. I am not certain of the purpose of this visit—it was clearly only a visit, and I suspect the impetus came from Sonia. As I have mentioned earlier, she reports that she had given up the Cleveland position and returned to New York so as to be closer to Providence (she was hoping to spend weekends there, but this does not seem to have happened); but then she was offered a position in Chicago that was too good to refuse, so she went there. She states that she was in Chicago from July to Christmas of 1926 except for fortnightly shopping trips to New York.[71] Either she is mistaken about the exact time of her departure for Chicago (it may have been September rather than July), or this was one of her shopping trips, and she may have called Lovecraft back to be with her. I suspect it is the latter, for Lovecraft spoke not of residing with her at any apartment but of taking a room with her at the Astor Hotel at Broadway and 44th Street in Manhattan, and he also said that on Tuesday morning “S H had to attend early to business, & was to be rushed so crowdedly that she could not have a moment of the leisure she planned.”[72] Lovecraft, although of course still married to Sonia, seems to have reverted to the guest status he occupied during his 1922 visits: he spent most of his time with the gang, particularly Long, Kirk, and Orton.

  On Sunday the 19th Lovecraft left for Philadelphia—Sonia had insisted on treating him to this excursion,[73] presumably as recompense for returning to the “pest-zone”—and he stayed there till Monday evening, doing a more thorough exploration of the Wissahickon valley than he had been able to do in 1924 and also seeing Germantown and Fairmount Park. Returning to New York, he attended a gang meeting on the 23rd at Long’s, during which two odd things occurred: he, along with the other Kalems, listened to the Dempsey-Tunney fight on the radio, and he met Howard Wolf, a friend of Kirk’s who was a reporter for the Akron Beacon Journal. Lovecraft seems to have felt that this was nothing more than a social call, but later he was astounded to find that Wolf had written an article on the meeting, and specifically on him, for the column Wolf conducted, “Variety.” This article is one of the first—indeed, perhaps the very first—article on Lovecraft outside of the amateur press or the weird fiction field; it is, accordingly, unfortunate that we do not know its exact date of appearance. I have had access only to a clipping of it; it seems to have appeared in the spring of 1927, as Lovecraft himself said that he did not secure the article until the spring of 1928, when Kirk, who had been carrying it around for a full year, gave it to him.

  Wolf, referring to Lovecraft as a “still ‘undiscovered’ writer of horror stories whose work will stand comparison with any now being done in that field,” noted that he and Lovecraft talked of weird fiction all evening long. He went on to say that over the next few months he read many back issues of Weird Tales and became more and more impressed with Lovecraft. “The Outsider” is “a genuine masterpiece”; “The Tomb” is “almost equally as good”; Wolf even had kind things to say about “The Unnamable” and “The Moon-Bog,” although “The Temple” is “not so good.” He concluded with a prophecy: “The man has never submitted his stories to a book publisher, I am told. Publisher’s readers chancing on this are advised to induce him to collect his tales and offer them for publication. Any volume he might gather together would be a critical and probably a popular success.” Neither Wolf nor Lovecraft could have known how long it would take for such an eventuality to occur.

  Lovecraft stayed in New York until Saturday the 25th, when he came home by bus. Judging by his letters to his aunts, it was a pleasant enough fortnight, filled with the sightseeing and congregating with friends that had represented the one saving grace of his years in the metropolis. Both Lovecraft and Sonia must have been entirely aware that this was only to be a visit on his part.

  With Annie Gamwell, Lovecraft made another excursion in late October, although this one was much closer to home. It was, in fact, nothing less than his first visit to his ancestral region of Foster since 1908. It is heartwarming to read Lovecraft’s account of this journey, in which he not only absorbed the intrinsic loveliness of a rural New England he had always cherished but also reestablished bonds with family members who still revered the memory of Whipple Phillips: “Certainly, I was drawn back to the ancestral sources more vividly than at any other time I can recall; and have since thought about little else! I am infus’d and saturated with the vital forces of my inherited being, and rebaptis’d in the mood, atmosphere, and personality of sturdy New-England forbears.”[74]

  That Lovecraft had indeed “thought about little else” is evident in his next work of fiction, “The Silver Key,” presumably written in early November. In this tale Randolph Carter—resurrected from “The Unnamable” (1923)—is now thirty; he has “lost the key of the gate of dreams” and therefore seeks to reconcile himself to the real world, which he now finds prosy and aesthetically unrewarding. He tries all manner of literary and physical novelties until one day he does find the key—or, at any rate, a key of silver in his attic. Driving out in his car along “the old remembered way,” he goes back to the rural New England region of his childhood and, in some magical and wisely unexplained manner, finds himself transformed into a nine-year-old boy. Sitting down to dinner with his aunt Martha, Uncle Chris, and the hired man Benijah Corey, Carter finds perfect content as a boy who has sloughed off the tedious complications of adult life for the eternal wonder of childhood.

  “The Silver Key” is generally considered a “Dunsanian” tale—on the sole ground that it is a work of dreamlike fantasy rather than a horror tale; but it has very little to do with Dunsany except perhaps in its use of fantasy for philosophical purposes, and even this may not derive directly from Dunsany. And yet, one further fascinating and subtle connexion may exist. Carter, having lost the dreamworld, resumes the writing of books (recall that he was a writer of horror tales in “The Unnamable”); but it brings him no satisfaction

  . . . for the touch of earth was upon his mind, and he could not think of lovely things as he had done of yore. Ironic humour dragged down all the twilight minarets he reared, and the earthy fear of improbability blasted all the delicate and amazing flowers in his faery gardens. The convention of assumed pity spilt mawkishness on his characters, while the myth of an important reality and significant human events and emotions debased all his high fantasy into thin-veiled allegory and cheap social satire. . . . They were very graceful novels, in which he urbanely laughed at the dreams he lightly sketched; but he saw that their sophistication had sapped all their life away.

  This, I believe, is an encapsulation of Lovecraft’s own attitude toward Dunsany’s later work, which he believed to be lacking in the childlike wonder and high fantasy that characterised his early period. I have already cited an astute remark Lovecraft made in a 1936 letter, but it is worth quoting again:

  As he [Dunsany] gained in age and sophistication, he lost in freshness and simplicity. He was ashamed to be uncritically naive, and began to step aside from his tales and visibly smile at them even as they unfolded. Instead of remaining what the true fantaisiste must be—a child in a child’s world of dream—he became anxious to show that he was really an adult good-naturedly pretending to be a child in a child’s world.[75]

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