I am providence the life.., p.98

I Am Providence: The Life and Times of H. P. Lovecraft (2 VOLUMES), page 98

 

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



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  “These, Randolph Carter, are your city; for they are yourself. New-England bore you, and into your soul she poured a liquid loveliness which cannot die. This loveliness, moulded, crystallised, and polished by years of memory and dreaming, is your terraced wonder of elusive sunsets; and to find that marble parapet with curious urns and carven rail, and descend at last those endless balustraded steps to the city of broad squares and prismatic fountains, you need only to turn back to the thoughts and visions of your wistful boyhood.”

  We suddenly realise why that “sunset city” contained such otherwise curious features as gables and cobblestoned lanes. And we also realise why it is that the various fantastic creatures Carter meets along his journey—zoogs, gugs, ghasts, ghouls, moonbeasts—touch no chord in us: they are not meant to. They are all very charming, in that “Dresden-china” way Lovecraft mistook Dunsany to be; but they amount to nothing because they do not correspond to anything in our memories and dreams. So all that Carter has to do—and what he does in fact do at the end—is merely to wake up in his Boston room, leave dreamland behind, and realise the beauty to be found on his doorstep: “Birds sang in hidden gardens and the perfume of trellised vines came wistful from arbours his grandfather had reared. Beauty and light glowed from classic mantel and carven cornice and walls grotesquely figured, while a sleek black cat rose yawning from hearthside sleep that his master’s start and shriek had disturbed.”

  Carter’s revelation is brilliantly prefigured in an earlier episode in which he meets King Kuranes, the protagonist of “Celephaïs” (1920). In that story Kuranes, a London writer, had dreamt as a child of the realm of Celephaïs, which is indeed a land of otherworldly beauty; at the end of the tale his body dies but his spirit is somehow transported to the land of his dreams. Carter meets him in Celephaïs, but he finds that Kuranes is not quite as happy as he thought he would be:

  It seems that he could no more find content in those places, but had formed a mighty longing for the English cliffs and downlands of his boyhood, where in little dreaming villages England’s old songs hover at evening behind lattice windows, and where grey church towers peep lovely through the verdure of distant valleys. . . . For though Kuranes was a monarch in the land of dream, with all imagined pomps and marvels, splendours and beauties, ecstasies and delights, novelties and excitements at his command, he would gladly have resigned forever the whole of his power and luxury and freedom for one blessed day as a simple boy in that pure and quiet England, that ancient, beloved England which had moulded his being and of which he must always be immutably a part.

  It has frequently been conjectured that The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath is the carrying out of Lovecraft’s old novel idea “Azathoth” (1922); but while this may be true superficially in the sense that both works seem to centre around protagonists venturing on a quest for some wondrous land, in reality the novel of 1926 presents a thematic reversal of the novel idea of 1922. In the earlier work—written at the height of Lovecraft’s Decadent phase—the unnamed narrator “travelled out of life on a quest into the spaces whither the world’s dreams had fled”; but he does this because “age fell upon the world, and wonder went out of the minds of men.” In other words, the narrator’s only refuge from prosy reality is the world of dream. Carter thinks that that is the case for him, but at the end he finds more value and beauty in that reality—transmuted, of course, by his dreams and memories—than he believed.

  Of course, The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath is full of delightful tableaux of wonder, fantasy, and even horror that make it a very engaging work; such scenes as Carter being wafted from the moon back to the earth on the bodies of legions of cats, his encounter with the dreaded high-priest not to be named on the plateau of Leng, and of course his climactic appearance in Kadath before Nyarlathotep are triumphs of fantastic imagination. A certain whimsy and even flippancy lend a distinctive tone to the novel, as in Carter’s grotesque encounter with his old friend Richard Upton Pickman (whose first appearance, of course, was in “Pickman’s Model,” written a few months before the novel was finished), who has now become a full-fledged ghoul:

  There, on a tombstone of 1768 stolen from the Granary Burying Ground in Boston, sat the ghoul which was once the artist Richard Upton Pickman. It was naked and rubbery, and had acquired so much of the ghoulish physiognomy that its human origin was already obscured. But it still remembered a little English, and was able to converse with Carter in grunts and monosyllables, helped out now and then by the glibbering of ghouls.

  The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath also seeks to unite most of Lovecraft’s previous “Dunsanian” tales, making explicit references to features and characters in such tales as “Celephaïs,” “The Cats of Ulthar,” “The Other Gods,” “The White Ship,” and others; but in doing so it creates considerable confusion. In particular, it suddenly transfers the settings of these tales into the dreamworld, whereas those tales themselves had manifestly been set in the dim prehistory of the real world. Lovecraft, of course, is under no obligation to adhere to earlier conceptions in such matters, but it does not seem as if he has thought through the precise metaphysical status of the dreamworld, which is full of ambiguities and paradoxes.[6] It is not likely that Lovecraft would have done much to iron out these difficulties in a subsequent revision, given that he regarded the work merely as “useful practice” for novel-length fiction, writing it not only without thought of publication but without any real desire to tie up all the loose ends. In later years he repudiated it, refusing several colleagues’ desires to prepare a typed copy of the manuscript until finally R. H. Barlow badgered him to pass along the text. Barlow typed less than half of the novel, but Lovecraft did nothing with this portion; the full text was not published until it was included in Beyond the Wall of Sleep (1943).

  It is worth giving some thought to why Lovecraft revived Randolph Carter just at this time—for this novel must have been begun some time before “The Silver Key” was written, and indeed must have been fully conceived at the outset, since the events of “The Silver Key” manifestly take place after those of the Dream-Quest. Clearly Lovecraft was wishing a character that might serve as an alter ego, and it has been carelessly assumed that Carter is indeed such a character; but what has frequently not been observed is how different Carter is in each of the five tales in which he appears. In “The Statement of Randolph Carter” he is merely a passive and colourless witness to events; in “The Unnamable” he is a somewhat jaundiced author of weird fiction; in the Dream-Quest he is a wide-eyed explorer of dreams; in “The Silver Key” he is a jaded writer who has tried every intellectual and aesthetic stimulus to ward off a sense of cosmic futility; and in the later collaboration “Through the Gates of the Silver Key” he is a dynamic action-hero in the best (or worst) pulp tradition. It must frankly be admitted that Carter has no concrete or coherent personality, and that Lovecraft resurrected him—at least, in the three tales (“The Unnamable,” “The Silver Key,” and the Dream-Quest) where he has a personality at all—as a convenient mouthpiece for views that were indeed his at that moment.

  In the Dream-Quest, then, Carter serves as a means for emphatically underscoring Lovecraft’s New England heritage. In “The Unnamable” a New England origin was merely implied for Carter; in the novel he definitively becomes a resident of Boston—as Lovecraft would very likely have been had his father not taken ill in 1893. Carter’s peregrinations in the dreamworld, whatever mythic significance they may have, function chiefly as mirrors of Lovecraft’s own wanderings, particularly to that glittering Dunsanian realm that New York was for him during his visits of 1922 and the first few months of his residence there in 1924.

  In an analogous way, the resurrection of the Dunsanian idiom—not used since “The Other Gods” (1921)—is meant not so much as an homage as a repudiation of Dunsany, at least of what Lovecraft at this moment took Dunsany to be. Just as, when he wrote “Lord Dunsany and His Work” in 1922, he felt that the only escape from modern disillusion would
be to “worship afresh the music and colour of divine language, and take an Epicurean delight in those combinations of ideas and fancies which we know to be artificial,” so in 1926—after two years spent away from the New England soil that he now realised was his one true anchor against chaos and meaninglessness—he felt the need to reject these decorative artificialities. By 1930—only seven years after claiming, in pitiable wish-fulfilment, that “Dunsany is myself ”—he made a definitive break with his once-revered mentor:

  What I do not think I shall use much in future is the Dunsanian pseudo-poetic vein—not because I don’t admire it, but because I don’t think it is natural to me. The fact that I used it only sparingly before reading Dunsany, but immediately began to overwork it upon doing so, gives me a strong suspicion of its artificiality so far as I am concerned. That kind of thing takes a better poet than I.[7]

  The curious thing is that Dunsany’s own work was moving in exactly this direction, and Lovecraft was not merely unaware of it but actually resented Dunsany’s departure from what he took to be the “Dresden-china” prettiness of The Gods of Pegana and other early works. Dunsany himself had definitively abandoned his bejewelled style and the prodigal invention of imaginary worlds by 1919 and in his novels of the 1920s and 1930s—especially The Blessing of Pan (1927) and, preeminently, The Curse of the Wise Woman (1933)—drawn more and more deeply upon his own memories of life in England and Ireland; but Lovecraft, although dutifully reading each new work by Dunsany, continued to lament at the passing of his “old” manner.

  One other possible influence on the Dream-Quest is John Uri Lloyd’s curious novel of underworld adventure, Etidorhpa (1895), which Lovecraft read in 1918.[8] It must have left a powerful impression upon him, for he was recalling it as late as 1928, when, recounting his exploration of the Endless Caverns in Virginia, he writes: “I thought, above all else, of that strange old novel Etidorhpa once pass’d around our Kleicomolo circle and perus’d with such varying reactions” (“Observations on Several Parts of America”). This strange work, full of windy philosophy and science defending the idea of a hollow earth, nevertheless contains some spectacularly bizarre and cosmic imagery of the narrator’s seemingly endless underworld adventures, although I cannot find any specific passage echoed in the Dream-Quest. Nevertheless, Lovecraft’s dreamworld creates the impression of being somehow underground (as in Carter’s descent of the 700 steps to the gate of deeper slumber), so perhaps he was thinking of how Lloyd’s narrator purportedly plunges beneath the actual surface of the earth on his peregrinations.

  ***

  It is remarkable that, almost immediately after completing The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath in late January 1927, Lovecraft plunged into another “young novel,”[9] The Case of Charles Dexter Ward. Actually, at the outset he did not regard it as anything more than a novelette: on January 29 he announced that “I am already at work on a new shorter tale”;[10] by February 9 he was on page 56, with an estimated 25 pages more to go;[11] by February 20 he finally realised what he had got himself into, for he was on page 96 “with much still to be said”;[12] the last page of the autograph manuscript (page 147) notes that the work was finished on March 1. At approximately 51,000 words, it is the longest piece of fiction Lovecraft would ever write. While it does betray a few signs of haste, and while he would no doubt have polished it had he made the effort to prepare it for publication, the fact is that he felt so discouraged as to its quality—as well as its marketability—that he never made such an effort, and the work remained unpublished until four years after his death.

  Perhaps, however, it is not so odd that Lovecraft wrote The Case of Charles Dexter Ward in a blinding rush nine months after his return to Providence; for this novel—the second of his major tales (after “The Shunned House”) to be set entirely in the city of his birth—had been gestating for at least a year or more. I have mentioned that in August 1925 he was contemplating a novel about Salem; but then, in September, he read Gertrude Selwyn Kimball’s Providence in Colonial Times (1912) at the New York Public Library, and this rather dry historical work clearly fired his imagination. He was, however, still talking of the Salem idea just as he was finishing the Dream-Quest: “. . . sometime I wish to write a novel of more naturalistic setting, in which some hideous threads of witchcraft trail down the centuries against the sombre & memory-haunted background of ancient Salem.”[13] But perhaps the Kimball book—as well, of course, as his return to Providence—led to a uniting of the Salem idea with a work about his hometown.

  The plot of the novel is relatively simple, although full of subtle touches. Joseph Curwen, a learned scholar and man of affairs, leaves Salem for Providence in 1692, eventually building a succession of elegant homes in the oldest residential section of the city. Curwen attracts attention because he does not seem to age much, even after the passing of fifty or more years. He also acquires very peculiar substances from all around the world for apparent chemical—or, more specifically, alchemical—experiments; and his haunting of graveyards does nothing to salvage his reputation. When Dr John Merritt visits Curwen, he is both impressed and disturbed by the number of alchemical and cabbalistic books on his shelves; in particular, he sees a copy of Borellus with one key passage—concerning the use of the “essential Saltes” of humans or animals for purposes of resurrection—heavily underscored.

  Things come to a head when Curwen, in an effort to restore his reputation, arranges a marriage for himself with the well-born Eliza Tillinghast, the daughter of a ship-captain under Curwen’s control. This so enrages Ezra Weeden, who had hoped to marry Eliza himself, that he begins an exhaustive investigation of Curwen’s affairs. After several more anomalous incidents, it is decided by the elders of the city—among them the four Brown brothers; Rev. James Manning, president of the recently established college (later to be known as Brown University); Stephen Hopkins, former governor of the colony; and others—that something must be done. A raid on Curwen’s property in 1771, however, produces death, destruction, and psychological trauma amongst the participants well beyond what might have been expected of a venture of this sort. Curwen is evidently killed, and his body is returned to his wife for burial. He is never spoken of again, and as many records concerning him as can be found are destroyed.

  A century and a half pass, and in 1918 Charles Dexter Ward—Curwen’s direct descendant by way of his daughter Ann—accidentally discovers his relation to the old wizard and seeks to learn all he can about him. Although always fascinated by the past, Ward had previously exhibited no especial interest in the outré; but as he unearths more and more information about Curwen—whose exact physical double he proves to be—he strives more and more to duplicate his ancestor’s cabbalistic and alchemical feats. He undertakes a long voyage overseas to visit the presumable descendants of individuals with whom Curwen had been in touch in the eighteenth century. He finds Curwen’s remains and, by the proper manipulation of his “essential Saltes,” resurrects him. But something begins to go astray. He writes a harried letter to Dr Marinus Bicknell Willett, the family doctor, with the following disturbing message:

  Instead of triumph I have found terror, and my talk with you will not be a boast of victory but a plea for help and advice in saving both myself and the world from a horror beyond all human conception or calculation. . . . Upon us depends more than can be put into words—all civilisation, all natural law, perhaps even the fate of the solar system and the universe. I have brought to light a monstrous abnormality, but I did it for the sake of knowledge. Now for the sake of all life and Nature you must help me thrust it back into the dark again.

  But, perversely, Ward does not stay for the appointed meeting with Willett. Willett finally does track him down, but something astounding has occurred: although still of youthful appearance, his talk is very eccentric and old-fashioned, and his stock of memories of his own life seems to have been bizarrely depleted. Willett later undertakes a harrowing exploration of Curwen’s old Pawtuxet bungalow, which Ward h
ad restored for the conducting of experiments; he finds, among other anomalies, all manner of half-formed creatures at the bottom of deep pits. He confronts Ward—whom he now realises is no other than Curwen—in the madhouse in which he has been placed; Curwen attempts to summon up an incantation against him, but Willett counters with one of his own, reducing Curwen to a “thin coating of fine bluish-grey dust.”

  This skeletonic summary cannot begin to convey the textural and tonal richness of The Case of Charles Dexter Ward, which in spite of the speed of its composition remains among the most carefully wrought fictions in Lovecraft’s entire corpus. The historical flashback—occupying the second of the five chapters—is as evocative a passage as any in his work.

  The evolution of the work goes back even beyond August 1925. The quotation from Borellus—Pierre Borel (c. 1620–1689), the French physician and chemist—is a translation or paraphrase by Cotton Mather in the Magnalia Christi Americana (1702), which Lovecraft owned. Since the epigraph from Lactantius that heads “The Festival” (1923) also comes from the Magnalia, perhaps Lovecraft found the Borellus passage at that time also. It is copied down in his commonplace book as entry 87, which David E. Schultz dates conjecturally to April 1923.

  In late August 1925 Lovecraft heard an interesting story from Lillian: “So the Halsey house is haunted! Ugh! That’s where Wild Tom Halsey kept live terrapins in the cellar—maybe it’s their ghosts. Anyway, it’s a magnificent old mansion, & a credit to a magnificent old town!”[14] The Thomas Lloyd Halsey house at 140 Prospect Street is the model for Charles Dexter Ward’s residence; in the story Lovecraft numbers it 100 Prospect Street, perhaps to disguise its identity (and the privacy of the occupants, in the event that curious readers might wish to look it up). Although now broken up into apartments, it is a superb late Georgian structure (c. 1800) fully deserving of Lovecraft’s encomium: “His [Ward’s] home was a great Georgian mansion atop the well-nigh precipitous hill that rises just east of the river; and from the rear windows of its rambling wings he could look dizzily out over all the clustered spires, domes, roofs, and skyscraper summits of the lower town to the purple hills of the countryside beyond.” Lovecraft was presumably never in the Halsey mansion, but had a clear view of it from 10 Barnes Street; looking northwestward from his aunt’s upstairs back window, he could see it distinctly.

 
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