Dissecting Lovecraft Part 3: You Never Forget Your First Dunsany

This article was originally published on Ferretbrain. I’ve backdated it to its original Ferretbrain publication date but it may have been edited and amended since its original appearance.

As we’ve previously explored, Lovecraft ended his nine year hiatus from prose fiction with The Tomb. Even as Lovecraft finished that story, he was becoming further entangled in amateur affairs. The current editor of the United Amateur, Andrew Lockhart, had been sent to Federal prison – Lovecraft, a supporter of Lockhart’s vigorous temperance campaigning, claimed that Lockhart had been stitched up by liquor and vice barons – leaving the post vacant. Lovecraft stepped in to ensure that the UAPA’s official organ would make it out, and took the opportunity to and round out its pages with a slew of his own contributions (not missing an opportunity to razz the National Amateur Press Association, which was undergoing an even more acute decline in membership and output than the UAPA).

Despite this unexpected increase in his UAPA workload, Lovecraft persisted in flexing storytelling muscles that had long laid dormant. Over the next few years, as I’ll be outlining here, Lovecraft crafted a plethora of work which for the most part tended to be fairly minor entries in his portfolio when taken individually, but provided important groundwork for Lovecraft both in terms of improving his craft and in pioneering ideas he would later express much more successfully in the major stories of his later career.

For instance, hot on the heels of The Tomb he would write Dagon, which is significant largely because it is a dry run (or rather, considering the oceanic setting, a wet run) of the third act of The Call of Cthulhu, pretty much reiterating the exact same plot – a sailor is in a boat on the ocean, discovers some vast landmass which has risen from the briny deep with odd architecture on it, encounters a giant inhabitant of this sunken realm which chases him, and despite escaping has his peace of mind shattered forever. Set next to The Call of Cthulhu, it is a rather lightweight story, but at the same time you can sort of see how Lovecraft needed to hone his craft writing material like Dagon before he could give a more definitive treatment to the same themes in later stories.

Dagon is also the first instance of an occasional bad habit of Lovecraft’s, much copied unthinkingly by his lesser imitators, in which he concludes the story by writing a bunch of stuff like “I can hear someone outside my room and see a scary scaly hand so I will jump out of the window now” which strains the credibility of the chosen narrative device. Our sense of verisimilitude is offended by the idea that the writer would continue writing their account of events under such acute mental distress, a conclusion which rather ruins the verisimilitude of the story.

This would be bad enough even if we imagine that the narrator is simply hallucinating or suffering a flashback or triggered some PTSD; however, the narration isn’t quite clear that this is the case, leaving many readers under the impression that the monster has actually shown up and the narrator jumps out the window to get away from it. Regardless of whether this interpretation is Lovecraft’s actual intent or not, we’re still left with the writer either a) pausing during a moment of genuine life-or-death peril to write some narration or b) pausing during a moment of hallucinated life-or-death peril to write some narration, neither of which makes the slightest bit of sense.

To give Lovecraft some credit, I think in most cases where the narration does this the assumption that the narrator is actually writing as he is about to die is erroneous, but it’s still an issue that Lovecraft botches the description in such a way to leave that impression open. And numerous writers of Lovecraft pastiches have repeated this motif as though it were a deliberate aspect of Lovecraft’s style. However, given that Lovecraft consistently exhorted other writers to prioritise maintaining a sense of verisimilitude, I rather think that he would advise anyone writing a story where the diegetic basis of the narration is important to keep the basis of the narration in mind and not throw in features which wreck that.

Neither The Tomb nor Dagon saw print prior to Lovecraft’s next laurel in the amateur world: election as President of the UAPA for the 1917-1918, with his friends and allies in his agenda of literary improvement sweeping the board. This began a five year stint when what could fairly be called the Lovecraft Party had full control of the Association. For the duration of the 1917-1918 term, Lovecraft’s output of amateur press articles and editorials scaled back markedly as he concentrated on his poetry, fiction, and those Presidential duties he could not delegate.

Lovecraft did not, however, return to weird fiction immediately; his next story, A Reminiscence of Dr. Samuel Johnson, saw him stepping away from horror to indulge in a literary joke at his own expense. Lovecraft by this point had regularly been criticised for his insistence on his old-fashioned prose and poetic styles (in keeping with his antiquarian interests and ceaseless fanboyism when it came to all things 17th or 18th Century), so for the purposes of this gag he writes as though he were an immortal born in 1690 masquerading as a younger man born in 1890, in the process doing a passable imitation of the prose style of Samuel Johnson’s day.

This Reminiscence was actually published before either of the preceding weird tales, and at this point Lovecraft seems to have momentarily switched gears back to poetry, with a couple of attempts to explore horror themes in verse which may have resulted from Lovecraft’s continued lack of confidence in the merits of his prose fiction. The day after Halloween 1917, Lovecraft was inspired to write Nemesis, a poem in which the narrator at first seems to be merely recounting various nightmares they have had but hints at there being something more to them – like these nightmares are some cosmic reprisal for unspecified crimes committed in a pre-human existence. The idea of dreams revealing to a sleeper a transcendent existence beyond the human that has been hidden from them prefigures Beyond the Wall of Sleep.

Hot on the heels of this would come Astrophobos, the poetic story of someone who on contemplating some northerly star (possibly the Pole Star) at first becomes enchanted by a vision evoked of some beautiful polar utopia of ages past, before ill-defined fears and foreboding turns the vision into one of horror. The connection to Polaris will, when we take a look at that story, become obvious.

Interestingly, both Nemesis and Astrophobos break away from the heroic couplet format that Lovecraft had so far used as his poetic training wheels. He had been urged to try out other metres and experiment a bit by his longstanding correspondent, friend and fellow amateur journalist Maurice Moe, to the point of actually writing a poem in more modern metre about Moe challenging him to experiment a bit with other metre (The Introduction), and whilst he insisted that he just wasn’t very good at stepping out of the heroic couplet cul-de-sac he was doing himself a disservice – if anything, whenever Lovecraft deviated from his couplets his poetry improved markedly.

The start of 1918 would see Lovecraft’s UAPA duties unexpectedly expanding once again – Lovecraft’s friend Rheinhart Kleiner, appointed as head of the Department of Public Criticism, found himself unable to discharge his duties, so for the rest of the presidential term Lovecraft went back to his old beat. His first column of the year is notable for his charmingly clueless declaration that a Miss Olive G. Owen was “the Sappho of Amateurdom”. Lovecraft was also finding some unexpected success in his poetry at around this time; his The Volunteer, a patriotic tribute to those signing up to go fight in the trenches which, due to its jolly evocation of an up-and-at-’em attitude useful for war propaganda purposes, ended up being the poem which Lovecraft would see reprinted most within his lifetime.

However, this wasn’t quite enough to keep him away from penning stories, an endeavour he would return to with Polaris. This is a fantasy about a man who dreamily contemplates the Pole Star and, in doing so, abruptly awakens to memories of a past life lived 26,000 years ago, when an Ultima Thule-type civilisation (of the sort often invoked in spurious myths about Aryan origins) fell to an invasion of Inuit because the narrator fell under a sinister spell apparently emanating from the Pole Star itself. It’s a haunting tale marred by its intensely xenophobic depiction of Inuit, who are described as brutal barbarians with no conception of honour. (There’s also reference to “Gnophkehs”, which subsequent writers have interpreted as monsters – indeed, in The Horror In the Museum Lovecraft describes a beast called Gnoph-Keh that is clearly not human – but in this context it seems like they are meant to be bestially degenerate humans.)

The parallels with tedious racist “White man awake, the barbarians are at the gates!” rhetoric are especially unfortunate, particularly given that references elsewhere in Lovecraft’s writing (including Nemesis) suggests that he was aware of and apparently at least partly bought into the crank Aryanist theory that true Aryan humanity originated in the Arctic. Lovecraft’s dream of a golden city which he felt he could reach in dreams if he tried, which apparently inspired the story, can also be seen to be the kernel that led to The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath; indeed, the dream seems to have inspired Astrophobos before giving rise to this tale.

This story is notable for having the first mention of the Pnakotic Manuscripts, an ancient text which would be the first of several documents of eldritch lore which he would drop in references to in his stories. Later stories, especially The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath, would namedrop incidents in Polaris enough to prompt some readers to interpret it as a story set in the Dreamlands setting of that novel, though it’s fairly clear from the text that this, along with a wide swathe of Lovecraft’s early fantasy works, actually concerns events in the ancient, prehistoric past. (This shift in setting may be deliberate; I think you could interpret it as implying that certain lost cities and villages and communities from the dim and distant past retain a continued existence in the Dreamlands, having passed into legend and the collective unconsciousness of humanity.)

In the summer of 1918 Lovecraft would also finish Psychopompos: A Tale In Rhyme, a poem he had been working on since late 1917. This tells a story of werewolves and wereserpents in medieval France – specifically, a region of Auvergne lorderd over by the family de Blois. It’s a fairly straightforward story, notable mainly for being so reminiscent of Clark Ashton Smith’s later stories of werewolves and witchery in his invented region of Averoigne that either the two were tapping into the same folklore or Smith borrowed the idea from Lovecraft directly.

July 1918 would see Lovecraft’s UAPA presidency draw to a close, and his issuance of a bundle of material (including a new issue of The Conservative) in which his particular political stance – which he’d largely kept quiet about during his presidency – comes back in full force; he would continue to put out new essays over the coming year. Some of these showed up his blind spots and obsessions; in November he’d write The Literature of Rome as part of a series in The United Amateur covering major epochs of literary development, in which he resorted to racist theories and fear of immigration to explain the fall of Rome and seems to give credence to phrenological theories of anthropology that were thoroughly discredited by the end of the 19th Century. It is embarrassing to see a professed rationalist and foe of superstition like Lovecraft subscribing to such stale pseudoscientific ideas.

The new administration would see Lovecraft take his final stint as the head of the Department of Public Criticism, but several of his columns for the coming year would be composed with the aid of Alfred Galpin and W. Paul Cook, two correspondents of his. Perhaps Lovecraft was encouraging them to take over the post after him; in particular, he ended up being a bit of a mentor to Galpin, who was a keen member of a high school writers’ club affiliated with the UAPA (and indeed was UAPA Vice-President at the time).

Men in their mid-to-late 20s who hang out with high school age kids tend in my experience to have a certain reputation for creepiness, and there’s a weird slab of Lovecraft’s poetry from this time which consists of comedic love poem parodies apparently written to cheer Galpin up after Galpin griped to Lovecraft about his romantic troubles. This culminated in Alfredo: A Tragedy, an exercise in disguising “Pfft, women, who needs them?” banter as a play in verse. The only play Lovecraft would ever write, it’s basically a Shakespeare parody with all the characters being figures in UAPA politics or Galpin’s romantic difficulties. Lovecraft includes himself as Teobaldo, much mocked for being so old-fashioned as well as just plain old, and there seems to be some self-aware nods to the fact that he probably isn’t the best-qualified person to dish out relationship advice in the first place.

It’s amusing enough, though Lovecraft belabouring his point on Galpin’s romantic issues here and in the excessive number of additional poems he wrote on the topic is downright odd. Writing one or two poems along this vein would be fair enough; even Alfredo wouldn’t have been excessive had it been the only thing Lovecraft wrote on the theme and had it either been shorter or included more subplots on other themes – perhaps some satires on then-current UAPA controversies and politics would have fitted the bill. But to go on to this monotonous extent about a teenage boy’s love life, and to invest himself so heavily in Galpin’s romantic success (to the point of writing letters effectively trying to act as an epistolary wingman for Galpin)… well, let’s just say that there’s a certain sense that Lovecraft may have been living vicariously a little through Galpin’s exploits here. That, at least, would be the most innocent explanation of what is really quite some odd behaviour on Lovecraft’s part.

That said, Lovecraft was not neglecting his supernatural work – The Eidolon, a poem following the style of Poe, dates from around this time, as does A Cycle of Verse, a triptych notable for evoking a vision of a hostile and uncaring universe which is shown arising not from a narrator’s dreams, but from their observations of the natural world itself. At this point we also note the first of Lovecraft’s revisions – The Green Meadow, in which he works alongside Winifred Jackson (credited in some versions as Elizabeth Berkeley). Effectively, it is a continuation of the technique of Polaris, in the sense that both stories are essentially based on dreams; whereas Polaris was based on a dream of Lovecraft’s, here the dream is Jackson’s, and it is believed that the prose is more or less entirely Lovecraft’s based on Jackson’s description of her dream. (Lovecraft claimed that he had the same dream, but in a less detailed iteration, and on mentioning the dream in his correspondence with Jackson prompted her to give him her account, which he worked into the story. But we must shun any suggestion of a psychic connection. We must.)

The story is presented as an ancient Greek’s account of being transferred to another world wherein they get caught up in a strange confrontation between two antithetical bits of landscape. By this point it seems clear that Lovecraft thought extremely highly of Jackson, regularly praising her in the Department of Public Criticism and writing an article in tribute to her skills in the summer of 1919, to the point where some have suggested there was a romance between them – Sonia Greene herself would quip about stealing Lovecraft away from Jackson, though this might not have been an entirely serious statement on her part. Their close aesthetic affinity and similar nocturnal adventures is not enough, however, to allow Lovecraft to produce much of a coherent and interesting story out of The Green Meadow, which disintegrates into incoherence in a way which Polaris admirably does not.

Lovecraft began 1919 by trolling the UAPA’s old rivals, the NAPA, by writing a cheeky letter to the National Amateur. In the letter he makes a big show of supporting a grumpy contributor’s complaints that the NAPA’s equivalent of the UAPA’s Department of Public Criticism was too harsh in its reviews; cleverly, the letter (signed off as though it were a collaboration between two different pseudonyms of his) actually ends up sabotaging its own purported argument by making the idea that criticism is mean and naughty seem ridiculous, and also underscoring how the NAPA critics were, if anything, less rigorous and exacting than the UAPA’s – all without ever mentioning the UAPA itself.

Such jollity would soon be dashed by the alarming decline in Lovecraft’s mother’s health, which would see her institutionalised in March 1919; her claims of seeing strange creatures stalking her in the dark as part of her symptoms contain an ironic echo of Lovecraft mentioning that he’d seen nymphs and satyrs observing his childhood worship of pagan gods in the woods. Susie’s breakdown would coincide with Lovecraft penning the Poe pastiches Despair and Revelation, both of which evoke a sense of uncomfortable truths intruding on a previously innocent narrator – much as the irritating chores of adult life were increasingly undermining Lovecraft’s hermitage.

To paraphrase one of Lovecraft’s literary heroes, to lose one parent in a mental institution may be regarded as a misfortune, to lose both looks like carelessness; seeing his mother confined just as his father had been decades earlier may have prompted Lovecraft to delve into psychological themes in his next story. Beyond the Wall of Sleep’s narrator is an intern at a psychiatric hospital who uses a pseudoscientific device to unlock a patient’s repressed memories of their true nature, and the true nature of all human beings, as luminous beings of light tricked into being imprisoned in our bodies by dark forces. (This is so reminiscent of the doctrine of Thetans in Scientology that I think L. Ron Hubbard must have read a reprint of the story somewhere.) There is a rather nasty classist, eugenicist spin to the story when the narrator is shocked to accomplish this breakthrough discovery when working with an inbred white trash hillbilly, with much being made of how it seems impossible to imagine that such a man might have such a profound inner life; the contempt expressed for this character even by the glorious soul within somewhat undermines the central “We are all galaxies inside ourselves” angle.

The imagery of the disembodied soul soaring through the universe recalls the central section of The Poe-et’s Nightmare, and like Polaris the story includes a significant reference which would crop up in future stories; in this case, this is a passing mention of the “cruel empire” of Tsan-Chan, a superpower of Earth’s future which is also mentioned in Lovecraft’s late story The Shadow Out of Time. Although this specific reference wouldn’t get much exercise in Lovecraft’s subsequent work, Lovecraft would start playing with the idea of building on otherwise-unexplained references dropped in the works of others with Memory. This was a prose poem based around tried and tested memento mori themes applied to humanity as a whole – it’s fun, but it’s basically Poe fanfic, riffing on a Poe reference to the Valley of Nis, interesting mainly as an example of Lovecraft indulging in precisely the sort of pastiche-by-reference which would form the basis of much future Cthulhu Mythos fiction by other hands.

The close of World War I would see Lovecraft’s impulse to write bluntly direct political poetry dry up, after penning a poetic obituary for Teddy Roosevelt and a tribute to the unity of the British race (ugh). Some poetical satires on political subjects would follow – the incoming Prohibition being something Lovecraft naturally wanted to crow over – but once Lovecraft was done celebrating the passing of the new law these would soon stop too. Given how Lovecraft’s political outlook was at best dated and at worst simply awful, this is for the best, though what we were spared in poetry Lovecraft inflicted on the world in essays instead. Lovecraft would issue a slew of new articles in July of 1919, a clutch of which emerged in including some in a new issue of The Conservative, which would prove to be the last until 1923. Several of these amount to nothing more than polemics targeting the likes of the League of Nations, Bolshevism and its international allies, and immigrants and the dilution of what Lovecraft saw as the Anglo-Saxon basis of the USA. They are by and large as short-sighted and embarrassing as his prior political writings.

One interesting piece which manages to be actually perfectly reasonable from a modern perspective was his endorsement of Anne Renshaw for the post of United Amateur Official Editor (an elected UAPA post). Here he launches a withering attack on her opponent, William Dowdell, accusing him of trying to dumb down the UAPA and undo the work of raising amateur standards, and in particular slamming him for accepting money and articles for a co-operative paper which never emerged – Dowdell apparently pocketing the money and using the contributions in other publications of his without permission. Evidently Kickstarter failures frauds predated Kickstarter by quite a way.

Tentatively dated to this time (although it could have been written as late as 1921 because the periodical it was written for came out extremely late) is Idealism and Materialism – A Reflection, an enunciation of Lovecraft’s atheism in stark and direct terms. Although Lovecraft had from a young age largely rejected Christianity, as we have previously seen he’d previously had no qualms in resorting to Christian-styled motifs and arguments when he wanted to make a point, and he had not – to my knowledge – publicly declared his atheism prior to this. Offering a philosophy tending towards Thomas Ligotti’s in its rejection of optimism or cosmic purpose, Lovecraft declares the whole realm of spirituality a relic of earlier phases of human thought and development useful more for its pragmatic capability to keep the masses content than for any truth it offers whilst decrying the boorishness of the militant atheist (an impoliteness that he is indulging in himself to a certain extent here).

Within the atheist camp he makes a distinction between materialists, who seek truth through the observation of the observable, and “rational idealists” who are atheistic for ideological reasons. (Marxists, basically.) Interestingly he hits on some turns of phrase which would be reminiscent of his later writing here – mostly when he is discussing the tiny insignificance of human life on a cosmological scale, but also when he warns that the rational idealist who wishes to arbitrarily cast down religion “should not pull down what he cannot replace” – a phrase that brings to my mind the classic “Do not call up what ye cannot put down” quote from The Case of Charles Dexter Ward. Lovecraft seems to at least veer away from Dawkins-like behaviour when he seems to conclude that both idealism (of spiritual and anti-spiritual varieties) and materialism will be around as long as we are – and theorises that they may be universally encountered wherever life arises in the cosmos with sufficient complexity to do philosophy.

Lovecraft’s fictional efforts from this point in time seem to represent a certain amount of casting-about in search of fresh inspiration, with him once again alternating between prose and poetry Old Bugs is a bit of playful nannying from Lovecraft, inspired by young Galpin mentioning that he’d sampled some booze recently out of a desire to try it out before Prohibition came into effect. The story imagines Galpin as a barroom dropout haunting a speakeasy of 1950. Lovecraft deserves some credit here for at least realising that Prohibition would just drive drinking underground, but the combination of his temperance-supporting fundamentalism and his wildly out-of-control class snobbery means that the story doesn’t ring true; it does for whiskey what Reefer Madness did for weed. (I am inclined to see it as a companion piece to The Decline and Fall of a Man of the World, which tells of a certain “Damon” who tries alcohol and ends up destroying himself – Damon having been a nickname Lovecraft had used for Galpin in other poems.)

The House is a portrait in verse of a derelict house of foreboding aspect that Lovecraft saw on Benefit Street in Providence; it is interesting mostly because the same structure would later form the inspiration for The Shunned House.

The Transition of Juan Romero represents the first of Lovecraft’s occasional forays into the Southwest in his fiction, and spins a tale that comes slightly unstuck because Lovecraft takes the whole “narrator is too scared to outright state what they saw” schtick a bit too far. I think it is about Romero, a reincarnated Aztec, having his soul taken away to some hollow Earth haven of his ancestors, accompanied by some weird, spurious links drawn between Aztec and Hindu legends, but it’s so appallingly vague that it this only represents guesswork on my part. At the end of the day, it doesn’t express any particular idea clearly beyond expressing a dismissive contempt of the bulk of the Mexican itinerant workers involved in the story. It is true that in Romero himself Lovecraft attributes a nobility to his Aztec ancestry that he would rarely ascribe to people of non-European extraction, but I don’t think he gets any credit for this – far from counterbalancing the bigotry he expresses towards other Mexicans, it only makes it stand out more.

Joshi wonders whether Lovecraft here broke a cardinal rule he’d later set for writers of weird fiction – namely, the rule that the writer should have a strong idea of what is actually going on behind the scenes in the story, whether or not that is ever communicated directly to the reader. I’m not sure whether this is the case, but it’s simply impossible to tell whether Lovecraft broke the rule or kept to it but hadn’t come up with the rule’s unspoken corollary yet – that regardless of how much you keep back, if you don’t communicate a certain minimum to the reader, you don’t end up with much of a story.

The City narrates in poetry a vision of a magnificent city populated by statues, which the narrator swoons over – only to have their mind blasted with horror when reaching to contemplate the city’s unspoken past. This strikes me as being another contemplation of his golden city dream which inspired Polaris, since in his account of that dream Lovecraft notes a sense that something terrible happened in the ancient past of that city, a disaster which would overtake him if he dared fully recollect it (an idea which, of course, he had already captured perfectly well in Polaris itself).

The fact that Lovecraft was coming back to that same dream yet again suggests to me that he was in need of new inspiration. In September 1919, he would find it; his narrow little mind would be utterly blown by his discovery of the fantasy work of Lord Dunsany. Lovecraft’s enthusiasm for Dunsany would be heightened by attending a lecture given by his Lordship in October, and Lovecraft would avidly devour a slate of Dunsany’s early books. The influence of Dunsany can immediately be seen in the heavy-handed but baroquely trippy allegory of The White Ship, in which Lovecraft further approaches the idea of his Dreamlands (without quite arriving there) by presenting a metaphorical journey through various lands representing different states of consciousness or desire.

Lovecraft would also write a poem in his by now well-trodden “poetic fan letter” mode (To Edward John Moreton Drax Plunkett, Eighteenth Baron Dunsany), which would make its way to Dunsany and elicit an appreciative acknowledgement from him. However, to my eye it looks like Lovecraft would greatly scale back his efforts to evoke the weird and supernatural in poetry following his discovery of Lord Dunsany, especially once he had crafted a few successful prose stories in an Dunsanian vein. Based on Lovecraft’s own writings it appears that once he discovered Dunsany’s stories and noted the compatibility between them and the sort of thing he’d been trying out in tales like Polaris, Lovecraft realised that it was entirely viable for him to accomplish his aesthetic agenda through prose, and that consequently there was no need for him to try to force himself to be a poet if the poetry just wasn’t coming together.

Some of Dunsany’s fantasies were social and political allegories – especially those inspired by World War I – and so our freshly-minted Dunsany fanboy naturally turned his hand to such a thing. The Street is unabashed anti-immigrant propaganda, putting forward the utter myth that the early US colonies were crafted by the hands of British settlers alone and that immigrant communities didn’t care for the places they lived and were hotbeds of terrorist agitation. It’s basically indefensible, a riff on his earlier racist poetry with an edge of paranoia about political subversion inspired by the Boston police strike.

The Doom That Came To Sarnath is a better Dunsany riff, telling as it does of a magical fate that befalls the city of Sarnath as a much-delayed revenge for its genocide of Ib, a city of frog-people from the Moon. This would be another one of these prehistoric legends which would be built into the foundations of Lovecraft’s Dreamlands settings in later stories – most particularly, nasty toad-like Moon-Beasts would be major adversaries in The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath. Lovecraft goes out of his way to note that the adventurers who visit ruined Sarnath to try and figure out what happened were blonde-haired and blue-eyed, and no kin to the folk of Mnar who are described as being generically “dark”, so the overall “don’t commit genocide in places you violently colonise” moral is slightly undercut by the “genocide is the sort of thing decadent brown people do” message. Nonetheless, it’s a shuffle in a better direction compared to The Street. (In dealing with a vile evil emerging from a lake of ill aspect it has something in common with The Nightmare Lake, an atmospheric poem dealing with, uh, a spooky lake, and Bells, a poem also depicting a formerly idyllic community overcome by some vague and shadowy doom, both written in the same month as Sarnath.)

The Statement of Randolph Carter, like The Transition of Juan Romero, is so vague about the horror that befalls the characters that a whole range of things might lie behind it. Lovecraft, however, makes a virtue of it; the story was based on a dream he had, and the horror of the story comes from the dream-like way that Randolph Carter does not know much about what his buddy Warren (Samuel Loveman in the dream) intends to do in the dungeons beneath a Florida cemetery, or what has happened to him. The final jump scare has the clever effect of confirming Warren’s fate whilst simultaneously making it mysterious, which lends the story a haunting power that makes up for a lot of its shortcomings.

No later than 1920 would Lovecraft pen Nathicana, combining Poe mimicry with vivid fantasy invention and telling, like much of his supernatural poetry of this period, a story of a supposedly idyllic place or situation that soon proves to disguise utter evil once its illusions are pierced. Lovecraft brushed it off as a parody of modern excesses in poetry – there isn’t even any rhyming, which is a major departure for him – but as others have noted it’s too good an example of its type for this to quite wash, as though Lovecraft was trying to cover for a desire to experiment which would make his previous conservative stance seem foolish. (See also his article Literary Composition, in which amid a mixture of grammatical pedantry, genuinely useful writing advice, and hyping of his new favourites Ambrose Bierce and Lord Dunsany, Lovecraft would caution novice writers not to read the pulp magazines, neglecting to mention that he was a hopeless addict to the pulps.) I am inclined to think that Nathicana predated Lovecraft’s discovery of Dunsany, since it plays with the same sort of themes that he’d been riffing on in Astrophobos and Polaris and which he had largely set aside once he’d discovered Dunsany.

The Terrible Old Man has three immigrants plotting a home invasion of an old sea-captain’s place, only to come to a bad end when it transpires he can still call on his old crew for backup. The portrayal of these immigrants is not entirely unsympathetic – their fate is supposed to evoke shudders rather than cheers, after all – but nonetheless, their portrayal as dirty thieves with no respect for local traditions is in keeping with the contempt Lovecraft had for immigrant communities in New England.

This does mean that this is another story which is more interesting for the ideas it introduced and which were revisited later on in Lovecraft’s fiction. Most obviously, it is the first story to take place in Kingsport, an invented town which would host several subsequent stories of Lovecraft’s. The character of the Terrible Old Man himself seems to provide a prototype for Joseph Curwen of The Case of Charles Dexter Ward, especially in the sense that he seems to be flouting the usual limits of human lifespans, is hinted at being involved in the slave trade in his time, and seems to practice a rather strange sort of necromancy in which he is able to continue to exert power over people even after death.

To a Dreamer is a poem in which the narrator watches someone sleep and thinks about their own adventures in the Dreamlands – certain signature locales are mentioned by name – before fleeing from the waking sleeper on seeing something awful in their eyes. It’s often overlooked in discussions of the Dreamlands stories, not least because Lovecraft’s poetry simply isn’t as widely read as his stories, but I think this is a mistake because it’s a very early take on the general concept.

As far as settings for stories go, it seems odd that Lovecraft didn’t set more tales in Classical Greece or Rome, since he was so fascinated with their myths; a major exception is The Tree, which is not only set in Ancient Greece but also includes various internal hints which allow knowledgeable readers to work out the time period of the story to within a few decades. It tells of two sculptors who, if you are scouring Lovecraft for something you can apply a queer reading to, offer an excellent starting point; living together as the best of friends, death itself cannot keep them apart – though the pursuit of art, fame, and a rich commission can.

The village of Ulthar, which would become a major recurring location in Lovecraft’s Dunsany-inspired fiction, is introduced in The Cats of Ulthar. This is the one about a curse inflicted on the town by “dark wanderers” who are evidently meant to be riffs on the “wandering Romany” motif – the vaguely Egyptian aesthetic associated with them perhaps being a nod to the longstanding legend that Romany originate in Egypt. This could be a recipe for disaster in Lovecraft’s hands, but in a major departure to much of his work his sympathy is very much with the foreign visitors rather than the cruel, spiteful locals. Then again, it’s also a story of a conflict of cat-lovers against cat-haters, and Lovecraft could unerringly and consistently be expected to come down on the pro-kitty side of any particular dispute. (I think, in fact, you could make an argument that his love of cats may have been one of the few passions which would rank higher in his sense of priorities than his xenophobia.)

We’re back to Classical themes in Poetry and the Gods, perhaps one of Lovecraft’s most mysterious collaborations. This was written with Anna Helen Crofts, a fellow amateur poet and writer; the basic format is that a lady reads a poem, enjoys it, and has a dream where Hermes comes and takes her to the abode of the Greek gods, who are returning to the world because poetry is coming back to it. The great poets of English literature are hanging about here, and exhort our protagonist to make poetry a part of her life, their speech being rendered in pastiches of their customary styles. Our dreamer wakes up and then later ends up living with a poet; the message of the story is basically “poetry is awesome and poets should totes get all the fangirls”, which seems a little self-serving if I’m quite honest. (There’s also the fact that some of the poetry in the story seems to be plagiarised, though most seem to think Lovecraft was unaware of that.)

Chris Perridas gives a fairly convincing argument that the framing story about the protagonist feeling mopey, falling asleep, and then waking up deciding that poetic boys are her preferred flavour of crumpet is Crofts’, whilst Lovecraft contributed the dream sequence itself, and I am inclined to agree. The dream sequence reads an awful lot like Lovecraft, the framing portions less so, and Lovecraft had worked on dream topics enough by this point that calling him in to pen a dream sequence for you must have seemed like a good idea at the time.

This collaboration with Crofts and pushing of art for art’s sake makes this an opportune moment to look back at Lovecraft’s amateur journalism activities at this stage in time. Though Lovecraft was no longer president, he was still closely involved with UAPA politics, with the clique of which he was part still holding the reins of power. As well as making various recruitment efforts, becoming editor of the United Amateur and custodian of the Official Organ Fund (the UAPA account used to pay for publishing and distributing The United Amateur), Lovecraft would attend a convention in Boston to which various luminaries of the UAPA and NAPA were invited to discuss the overall state of amateur journalism, marking the first time Lovecraft hadn’t slept under his own roof since 1904.

In a speech at the convention, Lovecraft advocated for more centralisation of authority and for an unofficial clique to exert a guiding hand in the journals, ensuring that the material published were of a high literary grade. Joshi interprets this as Lovecraft wheeling out a modification of his previously-raised idea of a Department of Literary Instruction, which was to teach new amateurs how to write well as part of their education, and certainly the idea of an inner circle unofficially guiding the development of authors seems like an attempt to accomplish the same ends through ad hoc means that could not be accomplished officially. However, Lovecraft and his political allies may have overplayed their hand here, since by the end of the year Lovecraft would find himself writing a United Amateur editorial trying to rebuff those who were complaining about the concentration of power in the UAPA. Little came of it immediately, but in the election of July 1922 the Lovecraft Party – including Lovecraft – would be ousted from power entirely, with his opponents sweeping the board.

That was still two years off, however, and in the meantime Lovecraft could keep at his fiction comparatively untroubled. In November 1920 he would finish The Temple, a story rather ruined by a clumsy attempt to spin it as anti-German war propaganda. This feels not just forced and clunky, but actively spiteful when you consider that the war has already been over for the better part of a year when the story was written; it clutters up what is otherwise a moderately interesting story of a U-boat crew who one by one succumb to the call of a vast undersea temple. Once again, classical Greece provides the aesthetic, Lovecraft apparently being in a mood to keep indulging his appreciation of classical myth. He would, however, largely back off from direct riffing on Greco-Roman myth at this point – perhaps realising that the triptych of The Tree, Poetry and the Gods, and this didn’t exactly represent the cream of his writing.

Facts Concerning the Late Arthur Jermyn and His Family is an infamous example of Lovecraftian racism, in which the discovery of an ancestor’s taste for forbidden monkey love and the genealogical implications thereof drives the title character to suicide. The use of Africa as the source of bestial horrors is as heavy-handed and obnoxious here as it is in the later fiction of Robert E. Howard, as is a blunt assumption that black Africans couldn’t possibly have built a city and that the architects must have been a race of white people who devolved into pale gorillas. The Jermyn family line’s association with “loathsome black” babysitters and various other people presented as social inferiors hammers home Lovecraft’s elitist, racist attitude.

If you squinted really, really hard, you might be able to read this story as a satire on people with violently negative reactions to the theory of evolution; after all, Arthur Jermyn kills himself because he cannot come to terms with the fact that he is descended from an ape, which is something that is true of all of us if we trace our ancestry far back enough. Unfortunately, this spin on the story just doesn’t fly when you note the various bestial attributes and behaviours ascribed to the various descendants of the Jermyn gorilla grandma; being descended from animals is here portrayed as being a very, very bad thing, rather than something which is actually kind of universally the case.

It is a real shame that the story is this clumsy, because there is a kernel of horror to be had in the vertigo-inducing realisation that you are basically part of the same long-running worldwide chemical reaction which yields gorillas and slime moulds and trees and tapeworms and basically anything else built from the same dance of codons and amino acids that produces us; Lovecraft would pull this off much better (and much less offensively) with the implication that all life on Earth are by-products of the shoggoth-engineering processes of the Old Ones in At the Mountains of Madness. (Another motif from this story – a bride who is hidden away to hide her inhuman nature featuring as the ancestor of a significant character – appears again in The Shadow Over Innsmouth and The Thing On the Doorstep.)

Celephaïs tells the story of Kuranes, a dreamer too aesthetically sensitive for this coarse world. Here, Lovecraft is back on the Dunsany pastiche train, and also gives the most clear enunciation yet of the idea raised in stories like Beyond the Wall of Sleep and the poem To a Dreamer that dreams can open us to vivid, consistent alternate realities which may have as much validity – or more – than our own. This would later, of course, be the central idea of the Dreamlands setting, and in fact in The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath Lovecraft would offer a continuation of Kuranes’ tale which rather subverts the point of this initial story in keeping with the evolution of Lovecraft’s thought.

Although Celephaïs is mostly a fantasy story, there’s a sort of strange cosmic science fantasy twist to some points – for instance the conversation Kuranes has with a purple gas entity which identifies him by the fact that his universe has matter, energy, and gravitation is interestingly reminiscent of the cosmic possibilities of Beyond the Wall of Sleep. Of course, it’s worth noting that yet again Lovecraft is riffing on his dream of flying over a cityscape, much as with the dream that inspired Polaris and Astrophobos.

From Beyond is hampered a bit by the character of Crawford Tillinghast, a tedious mad scientist type much given to cheesy monologues. However, in its depiction of a scientist who in seeking a transcendent truth only manages to uncover a realm of utter horror that makes it impossible to feel comfortable in our normal dimensional existence ever again, the story represents an early success in capturing Lovecraft’s ideas about the shattering and often demoralising impact of scientific learning about our place and apparent lack of purpose in the grand scheme of things. It feels, in some respects, like a sort of spiritual sequel to Beyond the Wall of Sleep, in that both stories involve pseudoscientific devices which expand the range of human perception.

Nyarlathotep is a brief piece which could almost be a Thomas Ligotti number. Again, Lovecraft uses the motif of a scientist whose demonstrations strip observers of all their comforting illusions whilst making them aware of terrible new vistas of reality. This time, the scientist is Nyarlathotep himself, emerging from Egypt and carrying himself like a Pharaoh of old; he would later become a recurring deity in Lovecraft’s stories, often acting as the agent of Azathoth, the mindless daemon-sultan of the universe. In the dream which inspired it, Lovecraft went to Nyarlathotep’s lecture on the suggestion of Samuel Loveman, who had recommended a range of weird authors to Lovecraft; perhaps we can see Nyarlathotep as the culmination of the horrors those writers had only hinted at.

Some of the dire visions related in the story clearly involve Lovecraft’s racial fears, such as mentions of “yellow evil faces” peeping out of the ruins of civilisation. The figure of Nyarlathotep is also worth looking at; he is is described as “swarthy”, and fellaheen are noted as being compelled to kneel before him without understanding why, and he is above all a bad guy – but he is lent a gravitas and a scientific capability that Lovecraft rarely extends to anyone who isn’t white. The term “swarthy” is one of those deeply unhelpful words people use when describing people which sounds more specific than it actually is; I have seen it used to mean everything from “darker than the whitest of whites” to “lighter than the darkest common hues”.

In later appearances, when taking human-like form Nyarlathotep would enjoy a range of skin-colours, culminating in The Dreams In the Witch House in which the narration suggests that his black skin colour is specifically darker than any naturally-occurring one. However, in that story Lovecraft also says that Nyarlathotep doesn’t have many African features in terms of facial characteristics and the like, and the comment here that he’s of the old line of the Pharaohs makes me think that Lovecraft might have intended Nyarlathotep as a sort of ur-African who gets to be dark-skinned but is respected because he originates at a time before (in Lovecraft’s conception of the world) the cultures of Africa declined and its peoples reverted to savagery. The intended implication here may be that Nyarlathotep’s lecture on the decline first of Western civilisation, then of life on Earth in general, may be informed by his observations of the decline of Pharaonic Egypt.

The Picture In the House tells the story of an old coot living in a remote farmhouse whose life has been unnaturally extended by cannibalism, which he was inspired to dabble in by a curious book in which illustrations depicting cannibalistic practices in Africa showed Caucasian figures doing the grim work in question. This is in some ways just as elitist and racist as Lovecraft could have made it, his disdain for poor country folk being quite evident and the inspiration for corruption and evil coming out of Africa.

At the same time, the story also has an inevitable implication that Caucasians and Africans aren’t too dissimilar after all, and what sets “civilised” and “savage” people apart is to a large extent a matter of culture, though this feature doesn’t so much exonerate Lovecraft’s racism so much as it contextualises it and sheds light on his political views. Though Lovecraft’s beliefs would develop and change greatly over the course of his life when it came down to what sort of policies he supported, his politics were always rooted on the idea that white Anglo-American-led culture was a fragile edifice which had to be defended assiduously lest it crumble; the main shift in his thinking was what policies were called for in order to preserve the culture.

Late 1920 also saw Lovecraft still in close contact with Winifred Jackson, who by that point had divorced. Lovecraft received from her a picture of herself as a gift, and reciprocated with a poem praising it (On Receiving a Portraiture of Mrs. Berkeley, ye Poetess). This and some other hints here and there from people active in the same amateur journalism circles as them have been taken as suggesting some kind of a romance between them, but the evidence is rather ambiguous. Around this time he would also pen another collaboration with her – The Crawling Chaos – which like The Green Meadow was essentially Lovecraft’s rewrite of one of Jackson’s accounts of her dreams, this time offering a startling vision of a far future world in disintegration. The unusual, dream-like apocalypse involved plus the title seem to tie the story thematically to Nyarlathotep – in which the term “the crawling chaos” appears in the opening line, and in the long run “the crawling chaos” would become attached to Nyarlathotep as a sort of meaningfully meaningless honorific.

Ex Oblivione is a brief story about a dying narrator who finds a partial release in dream and a total release in oblivion, in the process of doing so unambiguously stating that non-existence is preferable to existence. It’s basically another Dunsany riff, though an incredibly bleak one in its utter rejection of life as a worthwhile experience. Perhaps when Thomas Ligotti states he prefers Lovecraft’s earlier, more dreamlike work to his later material, he is thinking of tales like this. There’s scattered references in Lovecraft’s notes and the recollections of his colleagues of a story from around this time entitled Life and Death; however, that may be an alternate title or mistaken recollection of Ex Oblivione, since the central theme that life is more horrible than death is, based on Lovecraft’s Commonplace Book notes, reproduced in this story more or less exactly.

A lighter story from around this period is Sweet Ermengarde, a genuinely funny send-up of the sort of melodramatic nonsense that filled the pages of magazines like the Argosy, in which the titular Ermengarde proves to be not just a very capable romantic heroine but also beats the villains at their own game. Some of the jokes can come off as a bit sexist, like Ermengarde lying about her age due to vanity, but it’s otherwise a fun spoof of the type of material it’s parodying.

The Nameless City spins a yarn of a lone explorer who discovers a city in the Arabian desert which proves to hide a terrible secret. It’s something of a bridge between the sort of hollow Earth adventure fiction which was still popular at the time and future Lovecraftian works; it also updates important ideas from earlier stories and further refines them in a manner which would pay dividends in later tales. For instance, the device of bas-reliefs telling the story of an inhuman civilisation returns from Dagon and is later repeated in At the Mountains of Madness. Likewise, the idea of an underground settlement of people who backslid into a depraved state makes its return from The Beast In the Cave and would crop up again in The Mound. The latter has particularly chilling implications when you consider that in The Nameless City inhabitants’ decline coincided with the discovery of a strange Edenic underground realm – did it corrupt them somehow? Such subterranean corruption would also be implied in the other stories and be a major feature of The Rats In the Walls.

On top of all this, the namedropping of Sarnath and Ib makes the story a modern-day sequel to The Doom That Came to Sarnath – and it’s not impossible, in fact, that this is another settlement of the reptilian people who featured in that story. The Nameless City is also famous as the first mention in Lovecraft’s fiction of Abdul Alhazred (his childhood playname being resurrected for this purpose) and the first instance of the famous “That is not dead which can eternal lie” couplet. (It is not, however, the debut of the Necronomicon, despite August Derleth’s claims to the contrary; the Necronomicon is not mentioned once in the story, and wouldn’t be named until The Hound.)

In February 1921 Lovecraft gave a speech to an amateur journalism convention in Boston – What Amateurdom and I Have Done For Each Other – which reveals a remarkable change in his character. No longer sounding much like the cocky know-it-all of his pronouncements in The Conservative and other soapboxes, he gives a touching tribute to the hobby hich he openly admits roused him from a state of near-total vegetation and gave him a reason to live.

He also denounced much of his poetic output, admitting that it was just as hidebound to antiquated ideas of metrical correctness as his critics had claimed, and mentioned his intent to shift gear to weird fiction. (For the most part, in fact, he had already made that transition; by this point in time, Lovecraft’s poetic output had been scaled back to focus more or less exclusively on lines celebrating people’s birthdays or other special occasions, meaningful only to those who knew the subjects to whom they were addressed, rather than pieces turned out for a general audience.) Lovecraft’s change of aesthetic and critical attitude would be evident in The Vivisector, a review and criticism column he started in the amateur journal The Wolverine under a pseudonym, where he dismisses much of the Department of Public Criticism work he had done in the UAPA as being entirely too prejudiced.

The Quest of Iranon tells an allegory about a youth who remembers a time of childhood wonder who finds both the tiresome world of work and the coarse realm of popular entertainment unfulfilling. It would be a galling trumpeting of Lovecraft’s own tastes and his aristocratic pretensions of standing above the masses were it not for a conclusion in which Iranon discovers that he had been chasing a mirage all along. The revelation that these halcyon, forgotten days were but a myth suggests that Lovecraft was seriously questioning a lot of long-held beliefs at this time; it is near-impossible to reconcile this nihilistic ending and the depicted failure of art to attain truth here with, say, the tone of Poetry and the Gods, or for that matter subsequent indulgences in nostalgia like The Silver Key.

The Moon-Bog tells a story of a ghost-city of ancient Greek colonists in Ireland that is disturbed by the draining of the bog its ruins stand in. Penned as part of a St. Patrick’s Day writing prompt, the story finds Lovecraft lazily relying on his preferred Greek mythology rather than delving into Irish folklore (a subject he was not exactly ignorant of), and his classism is on full display (the living participants in the story consist of two posh gents and a bunch of “peasants” and hired help), though Lovecraft at least credits the locals with knowing exactly what is wrong with the bog and having the sense to have no part of its draining. The closing image of Mr. Barry being dragged up into the sky on a moonbeam feels reminiscent of the climax of the later tale The Other Gods. Thankfully, the story never hits on the subject of Irish independence, a hot topic at the time and a subject Lovecraft regularly used as a stick to bash Irish-Americans with.

Susie’s stay in the mental hospital had continued for so long by this point that it may well have become the “new normal” – certainly, Lovecraft’s more frequent excursions to amateur journalism events and to visit friends suggests that he was personally thriving. It must have been something of a shock, then, when she died in early 1921 – especially since she died of complications after a routine gall bladder operation, and nobody thought she was in any serious danger until it was already far too late. Perhaps some measure of the blow can be felt in the morbidity of The Outsider. The story is, by Lovecraft’s admission, further Poe mimicry – but it’s really good Poe mimicry.

It’s one of those stories where there’s some major failures of common sense (how does the title character not at least have a hint of what is up with them? Have they never looked at themselves?), but these are all forgivable for the sake of the story making its point. And the depiction of someone who is dead but thought they were alive, and as a result belongs nowhere and is accepted by none, evokes precisely the mix of horror and pathos that Lovecraft claimed he’d been going for with his Dunsany imitations. That such a depressing tale was penned when Lovecraft’s mother was either in the last stages of her illness or recently dead may, as Joshi points out, explain the tone.

To go back to one of those plot nitpicks, it occurs to me that Lovecraft would regularly dip into writing stories where the protagonist at some point either fails to come to some important realisation about their identity because of failing to look at themselves or are actively reluctant to look at themselves for fear of what they would see. The Disinterment and The Evil Clergyman would go in the former category; the latter would include The Dreams In the Witch House, The Shadow Out of Time, and The Challenge From Beyond. I do wonder whether this is one of those things Lovecraft took from dreams, because I for one have also had dreams where looking at myself has been either impossible or worrying. (See. for instance, the classic old “dream in which you suddenly realise you are giving an important speech whilst naked” trope.)

It’s worth considering just how much the focus of Lovecraft’s work would change from this point onwards. He had already produced over two-thirds of his still-extant poetry, almost all of his science writing, and over half of the writing he’d do on amateur journalism affairs. On the other hand, he hadn’t even started his travel writing, his literary criticism had mostly been limited to his Department of Public Criticism stuff, and still had a fair bit of philosophical and autobiographical writing to do.

Most of all, we’ve only covered the tip of the iceberg as far as his prose fiction goes. Over the course of the next few years, Lovecraft would make new friends, expand his horizons, get married, move to New York, spend a couple of utterly miserable years there as his marriage rotted on the vine, and leave his wife and move back to Providence; over the course of this, his priorities in his writing would gradually shift and his horror fiction writing would approach its peak of accomplishment.

2 thoughts on “Dissecting Lovecraft Part 3: You Never Forget Your First Dunsany

  1. Pingback: Dissecting Lovecraft Part 4: It’s Not Easy Marrying Greene – The Thoughts and Fancies of a Fake Geek Boy

  2. Pingback: Fun To Dip Into and Immersive While It Lasts – The Thoughts and Fancies of a Fake Geek Boy

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