Dissecting Lovecraft Part 4: It’s Not Easy Marrying Greene

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.

We have seen how Lovecraft’s return to fiction-writing and continued involvement in amateur journalism circles coincided with him emerging from the social isolation he had held himself in for about a decade, with even his mother’s hospitalisation not slowing him down for long. In the wake of his mother’s death, Lovecraft would continue attending amateur journalism conventions – not a bad plan if you’re the sort of person who finds it useful to keep busy when getting through bereavement. Notably, he attended the NAPA convention, at which he was called on to deliver a brief post-banquet speech (Within the Gates) in which he turned out to be quite good at poking fun at himself:

It is charged that I, as so-called Rhode Island Chairman of some “intensive recruiting drive”, employed the backs of National application blanks to write “poetry” on. I take this opportunity to refute so unjust a charge, relying for absolute vindication on Mr. Dowdell; who will, as in the past, assure you that I never could and never can write a line of genuine poetry!

He included quips about his very presence at the convention, since in past years he had been a UAPA loyalist with not much nice to say about the NAPA, but in fact he had moderated his tone quite considerably recently. (Perhaps attending conventions and establishing better personal friendships with people helped him cool off – and Lovecraft’s friend W. Paul Cook being NAPA president for the year can’t have hurt either.)

It is just as well that he was at his most charming at that point, because would be at that convention that Lovecraft met Sonia Greene; soon she would join the UAPA and Lovecraft would be singing her praises in his United Amateur contributions, Lovecraft having retained the editorship for the 1921-1922 term. Much has been made of the apparent contradiction between Lovecraft’s avowed antisemitism on the one hand and, on the other, the high esteem he obviously held Greene in and his decision to marry her. In his private correspondence, Lovecraft speaks of her having a volatility he ascribes to her “Continental and Non-European heritage” but says she has genuine cultivation underlying that; this suggests to me that Lovecraft saw Greene’s Jewish background almost as an encumbrance she overcame through assimilation, and therefore forgivable to an extent.

Meanwhile, Lovecraft’s writing was continuing at a steady pace. The Other Gods repurposes some of the ideas of The Moon-Bog for the still-emerging Dreamlands setting. Mentions of the Pnakotic Manuscripts and Ulthar tie it in with Polaris and The Cats of Ulthar, whilst the reference to the Gods of Earth hiding away from the sight of mortals in Kadath is a seed that would later flower into the Dreamlands novel The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath. The story itself is an allegory about how, as human accomplishments increase, the purported home of the gods becomes more and more inaccessible – and the awful truth behind the gods consists of cosmological forces who care not for us. The dragging of a character up into the air, and a curious thing happening to the Moon as a result of the coming of the Other Gods who keep the earthly gods as pets, are what particularly ties this to The Moon-Bog in my mind.

With Lovecraft beginning to actually distribute his short stories it was inevitable that he would start getting feedback, both good and bad; Dagon, in particular, garnered controversy amongst the members of the Transatlantic Circulator, an amateur journalists’ club who sent their pieces to each other and commented on them. This inspired a sequence of essays over much of 1921, collected together by later compilers as In Defence of Dagon, in which Lovecraft, whilst conceding that he may have deficiencies as a writer, eloquently argues that writing fantastic fiction is not pointless or worthless in and of itself, and that whilst he could fairly be criticised for not accomplishing what he was trying to do, he had to defend what he was trying to do in the first place. From there the discussion takes in such things as his defence of his materialistic atheism (which another correspondent had loudly objected to) and ideas about art for art’s sake as enunciated by Oscar Wilde.

Elsewhere, the essay Nietzscheism and Realism emerged as a result of Sonia Greene grabbing some interesting quotes from Lovecraft’s letters to her and compiling them accordingly. These reveal a cosmic pessimism perfectly anticipating Thomas Ligotti’s The Conspiracy Against the Human Race, right down to the antinatalism and the embrace of nonexistence. (It also makes arguments in favour of aristocracy, though with the caveat that most forms of government are bad because most people are bad.) Gloomy, alienating stuff, but I suppose Sonia knew what she liked.

Lovecraft’s 1921 output culminated in the masterful The Music of Erich Zann, a piece worthy of any of Lovecraft’s influences but with a voice I consider to be entirely his own (and a prelude to some of the nightmare visions of Thomas Ligotti). The tale of a mute viol player who seems to have been cursed to play music from beyond the threshold of reality for a cosmic patron in the infinite void is a masterpiece of atmosphere, with Lovecraft capturing the decrepit circumstances of Zann and the narrator adeptly. Lovecraft is particularly clever with the way that he tantalises us with an explanation penned by Zann only for it to be snatched away from us – and the narrator – before it can be studied. This is an excellent example of Lovecraft’s principle, stated in his Defence of Dagon pieces, that the truly inexplicable mystery is the one that arouses our curiosity the most.

At around the same time, Lovecraft was penning what was arguably the most lowbrow and sleazy of his non-collaborative works, the serial Herbert West – Reanimator. Penned for a professional magazine started by some figures in amateur journalism, Lovecraft had been encouraged to make sure each episode ended with some sort of gruesome climax, an artificial constriction that he struggled with and led to a silly escalation over the course of the story, and as the episodes went by the word count devoted to summarising the action of previous episodes became absurd. The story is also marred by some overt and snobbish elitism on the part of the narrator which culminates in an incredibly racist caricature of a black boxer, and whilst you could I suppose say that Lovecraft was quite effectively showing how the combination of elitism and materialism he himself was inclined to can prompt people to become complicit in awful atrocities it still makes you disinclined to have any sympathy for the narrator- or for Lovecraft himself, since he made little secret of sharing Herbert West’s own worldview himself.

1922 would see Lovecraft drawing closer to the NAPA, with his recruitment to provide contributions to its criticism column giving him an opportunity to hype Sonia Greene’s amateur journal The Rainbow to the hilt. Lovecraft’s increasing involvement with the NAPA may not just be down to his increased social links with its members, but could also have been a symptom of troubles in the UAPA. Although what I have termed the Lovecraft Party was still broadly in control of the UAPA, Lovecraft had something of a falling-out with Ida Haughton, who was UAPA president for the 1921-1922 term. Lovecraft alleges that her outrages included suggestions that he had misused the Official Organ Fund, but no printed attacks from her survive; for his part, Lovecraft wrote the basely insulting Medusa: A Portrait – a vicious series of personal slurs in verse – and saw it published and distributed, an act which doesn’t do him any credit.

Hypnos is another strong candidate for a “queering Lovecraft” anthology, since it’s dedicated to Sam Loveman and has the narrator meeting a fellow devotee of realms beyond sleep and becoming embroiled in a shared exploration with him. Take, for instance, how the narrator describes this gentleman after they first met, the man in question having lost consciousness at a train station:

I think he was then approaching forty years of age, for there were deep lines in the face, wan and hollow-cheeked, but oval and actually beautiful; and touches of grey in the thick, waving hair and small full beard which had once been of the deepest raven black. His brow was white as the marble of Pentelicus, and of a height and breadth almost godlike. I said to myself, with all the ardour of a sculptor, that this man was a faun’s statue out of antique Hellas, dug from a temple’s ruins and brought somehow to life in our stifling age only to feel the chill and pressure of devastating years. And when he opened his immense, sunken, and wildly luminous black eyes I knew he would be thenceforth my only friend – the only friend of one who had never possessed a friend before – for I saw that such eyes must have looked fully upon the grandeur and the terror of realms beyond normal consciousness and reality; realms which I had cherished in fancy, but vainly sought. So as I drove the crowd away I told him he must come home with me and be my teacher and leader in unfathomed mysteries, and he assented without speaking a word.

The actual story itself feels like a bit of a rehash of Beyond the Wall of Sleep with more drugs and dissolute behaviour, like Lovecraft collaborating with Wilde perhaps; to add to the “yellow ‘90s” air of the story it even leads off with a quote from Baudelaire.

June 1922 yielded a couple of fragments – What the Moon Brings was a bit of microfiction packed with atmosphere but light on content. Azathoth was an abortive attempt to start writing a fantasy novel in the vein of Vathek – the titular Azathoth being namedropped in later Mythos fiction but never encountered directly, Lovecraft perhaps wanting to keep his powder dry in case he returned to this or maybe deciding that whatever idea he had was better hinted at than executed. In subsequent stories Lovecraft would often allude to the otherworldly court of Azathoth, where the titular mindless daemon-sultan of the universe twitches to the music played by otherworldly pipers; presumably the novel referred to a visit there, as Vathek involves a trip to the realm of Eblis.

The same month also saw him penning a collaboration with Sonia Greene – The Horror at Martin’s Beach, which shares a similar “eerie things happen relating to the sea and moonlight” deal to What the Moon Brings but has an actual plot, this time involving a terrible revenge brought by a sea creature not unreminiscent of those of Dagon or The Shadow Over Innsmouth. Reportedly this was mostly Greene’s work, Greene having been hit by inspiration whilst walking on a beach with Lovecraft and Lovecraft then encouraging her to set the idea down, despite her reservations about her ability to do it justice, Lovecraft offering coaching and a revision of the final text. A nice bonding experience for the pair, to be sure, but the end result doesn’t seem to amount to very much.

Notable for including the first mention of the Necronomicon and the citation of Abdul Alhazred as its author, The Hound is an exercise in grand guignol, in which two buddies who seek after extreme experiences (much like a more gothy, edgy, Satanic take on the duo in Hypnos) find their titillating graverobbing games raise up something they can’t deal with. It’s another story which ends with the “I can hear the monster coming so I will commit suicide in a hurry, but not before jotting down that I am going to do that” final paragraph which Dagon wrapped up with, though considering that the rest of the story is equally over-the-top this might simply come down to it being a fit of self-parody. That said, the weird necrophiliac decadence of the protagonist and his close buddy reminds me an awful lot of some of the more gruesome stories by Poppy Z. Brite.

The Lurking Fear was another serial for Home Brew, though this time around Lovecraft doesn’t waste so much time on recaps and crafts a much more cohesive piece. It returns to the impoverished Catskills and, as in Beyond the Wall of Sleep, expresses a good deal of contempt for its impoverished rural inhabitants, and like Arthur Gordon Pym the basis of the story is the bestial degeneration of a once-aristocratic family, though in this case this is purely due to inbreeding, and perhaps a strange influence exerted by thunderstorms.

In late November of 1922 Lovecraft, having been dumped along with his allies from the UAPA leadership, found himself back in an official amateur journalism office again. William Dowdell, the president of the NAPA, had unexpectedly resigned. (In a letter to Lillian Clark Lovecraft would pass on gossip.that this was due to Dowdell running off with a chorus girl.) The Board needed to select an interim president to serve out the rest of the term; they asked Lovecraft to do it, and he accepted. Whilst this isn’t totally surprising given that Lovecraft and the NAPA had warmed towards each other considerably in recent months, it was still a shock to many in amateur journalism due to Lovecraft’s adamantly pro-UAPA partisanship in earlier years. On top of that,Dowdell had also been active in the UAPA as the spearhead of the criticism of the Lovecraft Party’s hold on power. To make an analogy Lovecraft would have hated, it was a turn of events much like Hulk Hogan turning heel and joining the NWO in 1996.

Lovecraft’s presidential duties seem to have prompted him to dial back his fiction output, for it doesn’t pick up again until August 1923, when his term in office would have been over. In the meantime, he generated a bit of poetry and a range of new essays. He continued to promote weird fiction, however – mere weeks after gaining the NAPA presidency he gave a speech on the work of Lord Dunsany, for instance, in which he both offered interesting reminiscences of his own encounter with his Lordship but also was dismissive of conservativism of the sort he had once espoused, stating that conservative values consist of “hoary fallacies and artificialities”.

Lovecraft had not embraced the radicalism of the cutting edge modernists of the time, however; indeed, around this time he’d pen Waste Paper, an extremely well-observed parody of Eliot’s The Waste Land. He would also issue some stern criticism of The Waste Land in a new issue of his revived Conservative, which he had brought back to life in order to lead by example – at the time, the NAPA was undergoing a serious crisis, with the Board in flux and member participation and publication of materials in serious decline, a situation which Lovecraft spent his presidency trying (with some success) to reverse.

What is interesting here is how chastened The Conservative now seems about its previous fundamentalist stance, as well as the tone of Lovecraft’s criticisms of Eliot; in particular, Lovecraft regards The Waste Land and similar works as being inevitable consequences of the destruction of all the old certainties by scientific advances now so well-proven and established as to be undeniable. This being the case, a period of turbulence in literature was regarded by Lovecraft as being inevitable, and he more or less readily admitted that the high art he used to aspire to could only survive if people deliberately and artificially limited the scope of their knowledge so that the values of yesteryear could still seem relevant and moving to them.

(Ah, but as we know from Lovecraft’s discussion of his religious and philosophical evolution, the search after Truth was all-important to him – or at least, it was when particular prejudices of his weren’t challenged – and so the evolution of his fiction hereafter can be seen as a quest to produce material which on the one hand acknowledges the new understanding of the universe and the implicit artificial, illusory, and transient nature of so many cultural touchstones whilst at the same time keeping to a conventional literary form which will be pleasing to readers rather than engaging in a radicalism so extensive as to become unapproachable.)

Lovecraft’s run as president was pretty successful, though sadly he wasn’t able to attend the NAPA convention to close out his reign due to lack of funds. A strange change seems to have overcome him during this period however; more than ever, he was displaying his dedication to weird fiction openly, to an extent that his final report to the NAPA membership as president urged them to swear to Lord Dunsany’s gods of Pegana a vow to keep the NAPA’s standards up, and was otherwise dropping odd references here and there. If he were still an Outsider, he was at least an increasingly comfortable one.

More or less at the same time as he lay down his NAPA duties, Lovecraft had a chance to get back to the UAPA front, because at around this time the Lovecraft Party won a massive victory in the UAPA elections for the 1923-1924 term, the anti-literary faction apparently having lost the confidence of much of the membership. The reasons for this are not clear; the popularity of the figures in the Lovecraft faction within the amateur world might well have had something to do with it, but I suspect some of it had to do with the handling of the United Amateur.

Despite griping about Lovecraft’s filling the pages of the official magazine with material intended to push his literary agenda, it seems that the suggestions from some quarters that he was rejecting a bunch of United Amateur submissions out of hand may have not only been mistaken (Lovecraft claimed to have only rejected three pieces) but disingenuous. The anti-literary party did not actually diversify the material in the official organ – instead, they ripped its guts out, restoring it to the simple summary of official business it had been before Lovecraft got his hands on it.

I am inclined to think that to the average UAPA member, disinterested in either side of the controversy, this must have come as a shock. Whether or not they agreed with Lovecraft’s literary aims and aesthetic tastes, it must have seemed like an enormous shame that the official journal of a group of amateur writers ended up containing, under the new regime, no amateur writing. If one is going to have an official fund to publish an official magazine, for which donations are regularly sought, people are going to want a magazine of substance for their money. Anyone who hadn’t been a member before Lovecraft made his changes would have felt that the magazine they were familiar with had been ruined; anyone who remembered the old style of United Amateur may not have seen its brutal evisceration as an improvement. I think under such circumstances a backlash was only to be expected, and a backlash duly came. Amazingly, Sonia Greene won the presidency despite not being aware she was on the ballot, and Lovecraft once again took the Official Editor’s spot.

His return to fiction writing was the masterpiece The Rats In the Walls, a story in which Lovecraft’s racial ideals are on full display but also quite directly and brutally subverted. (Rumour has it that it was inspired by a moment of ethnic panic when Lovecraft realised that his heritage might be partly Welsh.) Our narrator is of stock which Lovecraft would have found unimpeachable; a scion of British nobility with a family history that could be traced all the way to the Norman invasion, and on top of that the descendant of an old Colonial-era Virginia family who owned slaves right up to the Civil War, he is every inch the exemplar of Southern aristocracy raised on the beaten backs of slaves that Lovecraft had celebrated earlier in life and would continue to admire through all his days. Fondly does de la Poer remember the plantation; bitterly does he resent its end; with shame does he mention an anecdote about a certain cousin of his who started hanging out with black people and became a voodoo priest. He even has a cat named for a racial slur.

But as the story discloses, this is all built on corruption. Slavery and the use of others as chattel goes back further in the de la Poer family tree than he expects, and on acquiring and restoring the ancestral home in England the narrator is forced to acknowledge this by the titular rats, which only he and his kitties can perceive. It is embarrassing enough for ideals of white supremacy for de la Poer, the embodiment of all that was supposedly superior about Anglo-American civilisation, to descend from a debauched cannibal cult that had been farming humans for so long they had bred them like cattle into a pale domesticated breed that was easier to handle. For that same scion to slip under stress into the patterns set by history so completely represents a revelation which in the story the authorities move to cover up – for the implications would do no good to the social order they were trying to preserve, but which Lovecraft perceived by this point was an artificial construct which could not and would not last forever, and which Lovecraft supported through pragmatic self-interest, aesthetic preference, and a desperate fear of what might succeed it.

For the most part a standalone story with few callbacks to other Lovecraft stories, the tale is notable for a mention of Nyarlathotep as a mad faceless god jerking about to the music of strange pipers at the heart of the world; this is a role which would later be taken by Azathoth, suggesting that at this point Lovecraft was still tinkering with his invented pantheon and hadn’t (yet) made the firm decision that Nyarlathotep and Azathoth were distinct entities with distinct roles. (In subsequent stories, Nyarlathotep seems to be a sort of emissary of Azathoth; he is referred to in The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath as the “soul and messenger” of the Other Gods that Azathoth seems to be chief of, and in The Dreams In the Witch House he shows up to help press-gang the protagonist into Azathoth’s service.)

The Unnameable is an indulgence in comedic horror; inspired evidently by Lovecraft’s friend Maurice Moe razzing him about his tendency to have his narrators talk about unnameable or unspeakable stuff, he has his self-insert Randolph Carter talking to a Moe-analogue in a spooky locale, telling a story – which turns out to be all too true – which happens to be very satisfyingly replete with noteworthy facts and specifics, but whose central menace is… well… you get the idea. Joshi claims that this is the first story set in Arkham, but that isn’t true; sections of Herbert West – Reanimator take place there.

The Festival revisits the Kingsport setting of stories like The Terrible Old Man and links it in with Arkham too, as it tells of a scion of an ancient race (a rare non-Anglo narrator for Lovecraft, in fact) whose distant relatives and ancestral expectations try to cajole him into taking part in a sinister Yuletide celebration, only for him to balk when he discovers the true nature of the celebrants. Hinting at horrors made explicit and explored to powerful effect in Thomas Ligotti’s The Last Feast of Harlequin, it is marred somewhat by the implication that blue-eyed Aryans just don’t do this sort of thing, but is otherwise very atmospheric, if a bit oblique.

At this point Lovecraft would produce a number of collaborations with CM Eddy Jr.; the first of which, Ashes, is some sensationalistic hokum whose central gimmick of people reduced to powder would eventually be used to far better effect in The Case of Charles Dexter Ward. Lovecraft’s contributions there apparently did not extend beyond a few corrections, and it really does show – there simply isn’t a whiff of Lovecraftian prose or themes about the story. Likewise, The Ghost-Eater, whilst less trashy, is still a fairly basic ghost story which does not seem to have much of a Lovecraftian touch save for a sprinkling of adjectives here and there.

The Loved Dead, however – that’s a different matter. In particular, the prose style is so intensely Lovecraftian (right down to the near-total lack of dialogue, in contrast to the previous two stories’ wordiness) that it feels like Lovecraft must have rewritten so much of Eddy’s material as to leave little less than the core idea (that idea being “necrophile turns to serial killing, writes a confession, kills himself”). In particular, the air of decadence about the story makes it feel like a much more gruesomely direct take on The Hound joined at the hip with a far more sensuous spin on The Tomb. As with The Hound, there is a slight suspicion of self-parody here, particularly since this is another one of those stories where the narrator keeps writing stuff down long after they should by all rights have stopped.

Deaf, Dumb and Blind was Lovecraft’s final short story collaboration with Eddy, and structurally speaking may even be a true collaboration; the story comes in two parts, a narrative framing device establishing the facts surrounding the discovery of a typewritten manuscript in the home of a writer who died at his writing desk, having previously been left dead, dumb and blind due to the War, and then the manuscript itself, which I am inclined to think was Eddy’s portion because it’s so sloppy – specifically, the problem is that it has the writer narrating his thoughts but giving the reader so few clues as to what the narrator is actually experiencing that there doesn’t seem to be much of a story there. Part of the reason I am inclined to ascribe the framing device to Lovecraft is that its almost forensic attention to detail puts me in mind of how Lovecraft would skillfully outline the facts in his more “fictional nonfiction”-styled stories in future years – a style in which he would present the facts of the matter as though he were outlining evidence of real events, as in The Case of Charles Dexter Ward or The Whisperer In Darkness.

Lovecraft’s most famous collaboration of this period, however, was Under the Pyramids. Weird Tales had developing a business relationship with Harry Houdini, and it was decided that a story purportedly by Houdini should appear in the magazine; Lovecraft was tapped to ghostwrite it, and after consulting with Houdini produced this fun bit of hokum about Houdini being duped by duplicitous brown people (sigh) and getting stuck in hidden tunnels under the Sphinx, where he makes an Egyptological study which he’d have preferred not to. The story is spoiled a little by Houdini’s habit of fainting at all points, the constant assurance of the reader that it was all a dream, and the shoehorning-in of some escapology.

Still, Under the Pyramids was well-enough received that further work for Houdini seemed to be on the cards, putting Lovecraft’s job prospects on the most promising footing they would ever attain. Early 1924, then, should have been a jolly time for Lovecraft; his financial security was on the up, he and his allies were back on the ascendant in the UAPA, and in March he married Sonia Greene. This latter seems to have come across as an abrupt and surprising decision, to the point where Lovecraft’s own aunts (who he’d been living with) don’t appear to have been aware of it until he reported to them; as he’d quip in a letter to James Morton reporting the marriage, “You never can tell what a guy like me is gonna do next!”

However, in retrospect we can see signs of trouble on the horizon. Set aside the bad omen of the Lovecrafts having to spend much of their honeymoon retyping Under the Pyramids because Lovecraft lost the original typescript on a train; more troubling, perhaps, was Lovecraft’s casual, almost flippant attitude about getting married; sure, he might just be attempting levity in his letters at the time, but Joshi makes a compelling argument that Lovecraft didn’t seem to have any idea of the actual work involved in maintaining a marriage or other close long-term romantic relationship. After all, how would he? He certainly didn’t have the life experience necessary to open your eyes to that, and his habitual reserve about such matters meant that he can hardly be supposed to have had any meaningful conversations with friends from which he could glean insights. (He also seems to give more or less zero consideration from the fact that he would become stepfather to Sonia’s daughter, Florentine – who’d eventually attain fame as the journalist who broke the story about Edward VIII’s romance with Wallis Simpson – but this may have been less important, since Florentine was an adult who had severed ties with Sonia after a family dispute.)

As it turned out, the Lovecrafts’ marriage would turn out to be a horrible mistake – a mistake which played out mostly in New York City, a place which Lovecraft had previously enjoyed visiting but which it rapidly became apparent that he was temperamentally unsuited for living in.

The Lovecrafts began their marriage struggling to keep up with their UAPA duties. Sonia was not elected as President merely due to her connection with Lovecraft, but had previously been a capable UAPA contributor in her own right, with her Rainbow periodical being a gem of the amateur journal format; for his part, Lovecraft was in his natural element as Official Editor, perfectly placed to reassert his vision for the United Amateur. Unfortunately, in the 1923-1924 term neither of them were able to make as much of their offices as they might have wished, for the defeated anti-Lovecraftians would embark on a dirty campaign of deliberate obstructionism, with their most significant remaining office holder (Secretary-Treasurer Alma Sanger) ignoring letters and withholding funds, making it extremely hard to conduct even basic UAPA business.

As a result, only one issue of the United Amateur came out for the 1923-1924 term, shortly after Sonia and Lovecraft married. In his editorial, Lovecraft’s comments shed light on further issues facing amateur journalism. Activity had evidently declined to a point that for the three major associations – the NAPA, Lovecraft’s splinter of the UAPA (the “Hoffman” faction), and the other UAPA (the Seattle-based “Shepherd” faction) – their continued survival was genuinely in question. Lovecraft endorsed the idea, floated by James Morton, that the three associations should, if not formally merge, at least agree on a particular division of labour and activity, so that the Lovecraftian UAPA could be the centre of highbrow literary activity that Lovecraft and his friends had advocated, for instance, whilst the NAPA concentrated more on social activities and conventions.

Such a division of labour could also helpfully spare the UAPA the expense of hosting its own conventions, an issue which may well have been high on the Lovecrafts’ minds. Sonia’s decision to hold the July 1924 election by a postal vote from the Lovecraft home in New York, rather than running a UAPA convention at which the election would be held (the usual procedure) may well have been forced on her; either by the UAPA coffers simply being too barren to support a convention or Sanger’s obstructionism making it impossible to get a convention organised. The Lovecraft Party would win the postal vote onde again, but were unable to halt the terminal decline in participation in the long run, and Lovecraft’s UAPA would die out in 1926.

In his essay-writing at the time Lovecraft seems to have been reaping the fruits of seeds sown by his early rants in The Conservative; for instance, in The Omnipresent Philistine he upbraids a fellow amateur for a censorious attitude and an unflinching adherence to the aesthetic values of a past century, which on the plus side shows that Lovecraft had grown as a person but does still feel like he’s trying to argue with his own past self. Particularly notable is the way that he says that art should not be condemned simply because it doesn’t suit the political tastes of the critic, when during the war years he had made fairly unambiguous statements that he thought that particular sentiments and positions should not be given space in the amateur press. (For my part, I think it is possible for someone to produce work which is of artistic merit but with odious politics; my beef with the likes of, say, Robert E. Howard is that they turn out work which is both politically nauseating and artistically wretched.)

By Autumn of 1924 Lovecraft seems to have become thoroughly homesick, and had produced pretty much no significant work since Under the Pyramids. More or less all of his surviving bits and pieces from March 1924 to this point constitute pieces penned for UAPA purposes – which, needless to say, didn’t pay the bills. (Ghostwriting work for Reverend Bush and obtained via a short-lived literary agency-cum-magazine called The Reading Lamp also occurred.) Moreover, the Lovecrafts’ finances had become quite precarious, with Sonia’s plan to start her own hat business (in the wake of her quitting or losing her $10,000-a-year-job prior to the wedding) having fallen on its face. One of his topographical poems, Providence, emerges at this time, its trite lines given a hint of pathos if you know what circumstances yielded them.

The first fiction Lovecraft wrote in New York was The Shunned House, emerging in Autumn of 1924. This was to a large extent a basically conventional ghost story, notable for featuring a lot of scientific trappings with its ghostbusting and a big heap of Providence folklore and history – so much so that it rather weighs down the pacing. (I can’t help but think that Lovecraft missed a trick by not writing a Providence guidebook; we know from his travel writing that he could turn in readable enough stuff when he had a mind to, and he surely knew more about Providence than any of the other locations he visited.) If you wanted to apply the famous (and not always especially true) Five Stages of Grief to Lovecraft’s New York stay, The Shunned House would epitomise denial, for it takes all of its aesthetic impetus not from his present condition but from happier, earlier times.

The day after Lovecraft completed The Shunned House, Sonia would be gripped by a gastric illness requiring over a week in hospital to treat, further heightening the crisis in which the couple found themselves. By November, they would be facing the prospect of Sonia heading to the Midwest (where she could find plenty of work) whilst Lovecraft relocated the family home in New York to a more humble abode with lower rent, continuing to seek work for himself there. The protagonist of The Shunned House alludes to writing insipid poetry as a means of cheering themselves up, and it seems Lovecraft resorted to the same, with his poetic output picking up at this time but mostly consisting of lightweight numbers penned for friends. Solstice, a Christmas poem, baldly declared how he didn’t belong in New York and he’d much rather be back in his old haunts. It was published in the amateur journal The Tryout, and one wonders what Sonia would have made of this rather public airing of grievances.

(If you wanted to extend the “denial” phase of the analogy, you could also include in it the early 1925 poem The Cats, a prophecy in verse, in which the present-day appearance of New York greatly despised by Lovecraft is contrasted with the city’s future ruins, in which man has vanished and the town is claimed by the kitties.)

In summer 1925 Lovecraft decided to definitively step away from the running of the UAPA and not stand for any official office in the election that year – an election which had been delayed by a year due to Sonia and Lovecraft’s troubles and various misfortunes suffered by other board members. Lovecraft notes in his only United Amateur editorial of the 1924-1925 term that activity and enthusiasm in the UAPA had dwindled so much that nobody even wrote in to complain about it!

Though Association business had rather tailed off, more local social groups of writers became lifelines for Lovecraft. In particular, the formation of the Kalem Club – a crew including Lovecraft, long-standing friends of his like Frank Belknap Long and James Morton, and new acquaintances – not only helped Lovecraft keep socially active during his New York years but also helped prompt some of his own work. For instance, Frank Belknap Long apparently got tired one day of Lovecraft harking back to his New England homeland for his muse, and challenged Lovecraft to try and use New York as aesthetic inspiration.

On the plus side, the intervention seems to have prompted Lovecraft to return to writing stories, which his various financial difficulties, spates of job-hunting, struggles with UAPA affairs and heavy socialisation with the Kalem Club had distracted him from. On the other hand, this exercise in trying to broaden Lovecraft’s mind evidently backfired horribly, however, because it resulted in The Horror At Red Hook, a piece which fits the “anger” stage of my whimsical “stages of grief” analogy only too well.

The Horror At Red Hook is perhaps one of the most tragic pieces in Lovecraft’s canon, because there are some really great moments in there and elements of what could have been a great story ruined by such a fixed, obsessive, and malignant hatred towards black people and immigrants alike that the tale is quite ruined as a result. It isn’t merely Lovecraft’s passionate hatred for the neighborhood and its people or the rants about them that pad out the story that hurts it; as with much of Robert E. Howard’s fiction, racism is baked into the very structure of the story as to corrupt it. (It’s even more distasteful when Lovecraft casts the entire Yazidi people in a villainous role, playing on the slurs of devil worship that in recent years has driven the ISIS campaign against them.)

Lovecraft does offer a rich white man of northern European extraction as a participant and ringleader in villainy – Robert Suydam – but this helps little. Lovecraft more or less directly states that the demonological lore of the immigrants would have not been given full effectiveness without the contribution of a superior Aryan intellect unlocking it. (One could envisage a different spin on the tale, where Suydam bribes locals into performing what they think are meaningless dances and chants for his amusement and they go along with it because hey, free money can’t hurt, but even then this would just flip things around from “sophisticated European debases himself with dubious foreign religions” to “sophisticated European manipulates poor foreign dupes”, which isn’t much of an improvement.) That Suydam is a Kabbalah expert doesn’t help either. I can see why Victor LaValle has chosen the story as the basis for The Ballad of Black Tom, his rebuttal to Lovecraft’s toxic values: the idea of raising a cast of demons worthy of a Slayer album cover to cast down white supremacy in the 1920s is awesome as hell and I for one would turn race traitor for such a cause gladly.

He seems intensely autobiographical, concerning a narrator whose coming to New York, he admits, has been a mistake – despite penning some poetry, he has failed to gain any inspiration from the city and despises its hustle and bustle and diversity. Our narrator encounters a fellow antiquarian and racist, who shows him a magic trick he learned by murdering some Native Americans: the ability to show vistas of New York from across the timeline, including an eldritch far future where the city is full of Asians dancing to dubstep. This last revelation is, of course, too horrible to behold and, reacting badly, the narrator inadvertently gives the murder victims a chance for revenge. To keep my analogy plodding along, this strikes me as “bargaining” in the sense of Lovecraft trying to find some good in New York; the city really does (or at least, did at that time) have some charming little hidden-away portions which Lovecraft loved to seek out in order to obtain a curious sort of architectural therapy; both Lovecraft himself and Joshi would comment extensively on how Lovecraft’s moods seemed incredibly sensitive to the architecture and landscape around him.

In the Vault is a conventional ghost story and another decent horror-comedy piece from Lovecraft, in which a village undertaker’s cheapskate ways turn around and bite him. Inspired by an anecdote told to Lovecraft by CW Smith, editor of the amateur journal The Tryout, it’s a bit of fun whose rural setting was probably soothing to Lovecraft at the time. It stretches my five stages of grief analogy, because there isn’t an enormous amount about it that suggests depression – save, perhaps, for the way that Lovecraft seems to be going through the motions to regurgitate someone else’s bright idea.

Cool Air finds Lovecraft almost warming to New York. Oh, he’s still racist as hell, disdaining most of the characters (described as Spanish, though I think intended to mostly be Hispanic), but in the central figure of Dr. Muñoz Lovecraft finds a figure who is rather sympathetic, and who is clearly a genius of an order Lovecraft was ordinarily reluctant to concede to other races.

It might be seen as representing “acceptance” in my analogy, because finally Lovecraft seemed to produce a story in which the logistics and rhythms and interactions of living in the Big Apple feature with a sense of verisimilitude and become the basis of the story. However, by the time it was written in March 1926 Lovecraft had come to accept something else: that his marriage and his relocation to New York were both mistakes, and both untenable, and it would be for the best if he and Sonia separated and he returned to Providence.

The end of Lovecraft’s New York stay would not just be good for his state of mind; it would also artistically benefit him. Although his work had reached a high level of polish before he came to the Big Apple, the fact is that none of the stories he produced there really constitute top-tier stuff. It is clear that, with the exception of his boundless xenophobia, his reserves of inspiration were running low; even the best of his five New York tales, Cool Air, is basically a riff on Poe’s Facts In the Case of M. Valdemar with a different pseudoscientific basis for the central character’s extended lifespan folded in.

Lovecraft’s return to Providence would find his creative process kicking into high gear again, with a sudden burst of new material emerging – including several pieces which would rank among his best work.

Advertisements

2 thoughts on “Dissecting Lovecraft Part 4: It’s Not Easy Marrying Greene

  1. Pingback: Dissecting Lovecraft Part 5: Home Again, Home Again, Cthulhu Fhtagn – The Thoughts and Fancies of a Fake Geek Boy

  2. Pingback: When He’s Right He’s Right, When He’s Wrong He’s Frank Belknap Wrong – The Thoughts and Fancies of a Fake Geek Boy

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s