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’ve previously seen how Lovecraft’s work reached its peak of ambition with At the Mountains of Madness, only for Lovecraft to become disheartened at his failure to sell it. Still, Lovecraft couldn’t stop writing if he wanted to eat, so the next phase of his writing saw him trying to rekindle his enthusiasm for his solo sories whilst doing plenty of revision work to try and scrape out a living.
The Trap is a revision Lovecraft did for Henry Whitehead. This is seen as a “secondary” revision and in truth there does not seem to be much Lovecraft in it to my eyes, though it’s an interest enough story about a mirror that traps a boarding school student who must be rescued by his teacher. The close of the story, in which the student turns up back in the teacher’s room and they need to come up with some sort of convoluted ruse to avoid any dodgy questions arising from the boy just turning up in the teacher’s room in the middle of the night, makes for slightly uncomfortable reading in a “How did this guy who was a teacher in his day job put so much thought into smuggling boys into and out of his room?” sort of way, and to be honest there doesn’t seem to be an enormous amount to it that’s especially Lovecraftian beyond one mild touch in which, as a result of being caught in the mirror, the kid ends up with his organs mirrored so his heart is on the right-hand side and so on, which borrows an entertainingly discomforting idea from The Mound.
The fall of 1931 would see Lovecraft appointed to the NAPA’s Bureau of Critics, heralding the start of his final significant period of engagement with amateur journalism. In the 8 years since he’d last held such a post he had very obviously mellowed out somewhat; gone is the unwavering fanaticism for formalistic correctness and adamant refusal to countenance any modern novelties which was so often a feature of his Department of Public Criticism work in the UAPA, and in its place is a more measured desire to cultivate the talent of beginners which Lovecraft would also extent to writers who contacted him personally.
Lovecraft was keeping up his own writing, however, and turned out The Shadow Over Innsmouth, perhaps the most racist story he wrote in the post-Mountains of Madness sunset of his career. On the one hand, the story is a truly evocative depiction of a rotting town, its sparsely populated streets devastated by the titular shadow; it’s just an enormous shame that the rot in question is attributed to race-mixing. Admittedly, this isn’t about having mixed race children between different human ethnicities so much as it’s about human beings banging Cthulhu-worshipping fish people, but said fish people are very much coded as a foreign menace, right down to having been originally been encountered in the South Seas.
It’s notable that there’s mentions that the South Seas islanders who genocide the tribe that had been collaborating with the Deep Ones seem to have left charms behind – referred to as the “Old Ones’ signs”. These artifacts, which supposedly hold the Old Ones at bay, sound much more like the sort of Elder Signs and Mnar stones that Derleth talked about in his fiction, though contextually it seems less like they are the symbol of the benign power of Derlethian Elder Gods so much as they are the sign of a greater supernatural authority than the Deep Ones, since these signs are associated with the Old Ones which, since this is a Cthulhu-heavy story, seem likely to be associated with Cthulhu himself.
But why, then, did Derleth go with these being “star stones” – reminiscent of the tokens in At the Mountains of Madness – rather than the forms they are depicted in here? All too easy to explain, I am afraid: the Elder Signs described in this story are swastikas. Now, granted, this story was written well before Hitler became Chancellor of Germany, so it’s not like the swastika had become utter poison in the West by this point, but at the same time by 1931 the Nazis had made more than enough noise and had pushed their swastika symbolism more than enough that the linkage is troubling. (The swastika being left behind at the scene of an act of genocidal ethnic cleansing, in particular, is a deeply unfortunate association.)
It’s not just the swastikas that make the story dodgy, of course; it’s the way the entire thing is constructed as a polemic against racial intermarriage and the like, the end result seems to be the colonisation of what was a lovely New England town by hostile alien forces (recall Lovecraft’s political poetry from the 1910s on this subject, like New-England Fallen!) which is only reversed when the government shows up and tosses all the alien-human hybrids into concentration camps. Although the government cover-up angle is another fun prelude to future UFO conspiracy theory lore, the fact is that the defenders of New England civilisation – the closest thing Lovecraft could embrace as being “good guys” – here defend it by committing what is, again, very obviously an act of genocide.
The end result feels like a reheated and and more authoritarian take on The Horror At Red Hook, and the fact that the federal government has a prominent interventionist role in the story – in keeping with the way Lovecraft had, since writing Red Hook, come to endorse firm, interventionist, authoritarian actions on the part of the government, makes the story an uncomfortable illustration of what the real implications of Lovecraft’s “fascistic socialism” are.
To get counterfactual for a moment, many of these unpleasant implications – not to mention the rapey undercurrent implicit in the hybrid breeding program – could have been avoided if Deep Ones were like the ghouls from Pickman’s Model – that is to say, a monstrous species that humans could transform into directly through ongoing exposure to and participation in their practices, rather than it being a matter of heredity. It would, in fact, make an awful lot of sense given that the story already involves the Deep Ones worshipping Cthulhu via a sect with multiple levels of initiation, so the various features of Deep One-ness could be conferred on humans as dubious “blessings” as they progress through that.
The racism isn’t the only aspect of the story that doesn’t sit right with me; the pacing seems curiously botched. It’s fine early on, with the narrator’s investigations culminating in another bid by Lovecraft to do an action sequence – a rather effective one, for the most part, though it does seem to peter out a bit and the fact that the narrator wasn’t discovered by his pursuers when he lost consciousness feels like it involves either a huge stroke of luck on his part or an appalling lapse of judgement on theirs. But after this the story lapses into a long section focused less on the narrator reporting his experience to the authorities, which is glossed over abruptly, but on some rather slow-paced genealogical research which eventually reveals his connection to the Deep Ones. I can see the point of presenting that narration to set up the final twist, but I find I have to take place with the placement of it, because it means the story ends up having way more denouement after the climax than it can really support.
The story isn’t outright incompetent, mind, and I can enjoy some aspects. The ending reveals that the call of the Deep Ones comes in dreams once the hybrid nature takes hold, and once you consider the parallels with Cthulhu’s influence over dreams you could conceive of the whole thing as being a bid by Cthulhu to create a race of humanoids simultaneously able to come visit when R’lyeh is on the seabed and more vulnerable to Cthulhu’s telepathic sendings (which regular humans only receive loud and clear when R’lyeh comes to the surface). Whether or not this was intentional, I think the use of dreams here is one of the better and more subtle callbacks to The Call of Cthulhu. And in general the narrator’s perambulations make interesting use of Lovecraft’s experiences on his travels up down bus lines, staying in cheap hotels, poking around old churches and other sites of interest and doing genealogy.
In between this and the next story Lovecraft wrote a strange little piece called Some Causes of Self-Immolation, in which under the guise of a “Professor of Satanism and Applied Irreverence” he provides what seems to be a serious and (aside from some swiping at “Orientals” and what Lovecraft considers to be the self-abasement endemic to Eastern religions – as though Christianity somehow lacks a martyr complex) actually quite good philosophical rumination on what conscious or unconscious motivations people may have for voluntarily subjecting themselves to harm or discomfort that doesn’t give them any pragmatic benefit (as opposed to, say, being thrifty so you can have more money to later on).
Though it is widely touted by some Lovecraft readers, I find The Dreams in the Witch-House to be a rather thin and uninteresting story. It is an interesting return to overt supernaturalism after the much more science fictional emphasis of the stories leading up to it, but there’s still healthy does of sci-fi involved; in particular, the baddie is a female mathematician. Some of the more elements of “classic” supernatural horror fiction – witches Sabbats, human sacrifice, and crucifixes – appear here, although I do not think the crucifix is quite as supernaturally potent as Joshi interprets it as being – the protagonist does make the witch flinch momentarily by shoving it in her face, but let’s face it, shove any object in someone’s face and they’ll flinch. The story also depicts Polish people as being kind-hearted but simple-minded and superstitious, in that sort of paternalistic, patronising way Lovecraft has when he wants to be reasonably kind about immigrant populations whilst still being very racist about them.
Although Lovecraft was more or less done as a poet by this point, Notes On Verse Technique, whilst it still finds Lovecraft somewhat disapproving of the use of certain modern words in poetry and pedantic on the point of syllable-counting (for instance, he insists that “hours” must be a single syllable, whereas I think in some accents and dialects it could well have two syllables – “ow-ers”), but he seems much more accepting of free verse as a poetic mode, restricting himself to the very reasonable warning that it isn’t a great idea for beginners to do a lot of free verse because working in a more regular format can help you develop a better ear for rhythm and expression and beginners often flounder without useful guidelines to help them.
The Man of Stone is the first of a string of revisions Lovecraft produced for Hazel Heald (though the scholarship suggests that by and large these were entirely written by Lovecraft based on vague ideas proposed by Heald). Structurally speaking it is rather shoddy, in that we see the worst of the horror before the story is half done and the rest is a somewhat predictable explanation of what unfolded, though there is a nice triumphant note at the end and a rare instance of a woman defeating the bad guy in Lovecraft’s fiction. The story centres on a certain chemical which allows for the rapid petrification of those who are exposed to it, which is very reminiscent of the central gimmick of The Mask, one of the lesser stories from Robert Chambers’ The King In Yellow. The shoehorning-in of Mythos elements here are a little heavy-handed and irrelevant, but without them it would he hard to see how a backwoods hermit with no scientific training or lab would just randomly stumble on such a major chemical breakthrough, and it sort of continues the idea that various bits of ancient super-science were handed down in witch-cults that was previously aired in Dreams In the Witch-House.
The second fruit of Lovecraft’s work for Hazel Heald was Winged Death, which treats us to lots of racism (It’s set in africa) but at least in context most of this comes from an arrogant character whose contemptuous dismissal of black people’s folklore leads him into trouble. It’s basically the same “murderer tries novel method, hoist by own petard by intended victim” concept as Man of Stone, with only the murder method changed. Lovecraftian references are restricted to a single mention that close to where the devil-flies central to the plot are to be found are ruined remnants of an eldritch settlement of the Fishers from Outside (as mentioned in The Outpost), which here are overtly linked to Tsathoggua and Cthulhu.
At this stage in his life Lovecraft’s ascetic lifestyle was beginning to cause a certain curious transformation in him. Consider this statement from colleague W. Paul Cook, describing Lovecraft’s appearance on his return from his travels in 1932.:
Folds of skin hanging from a skeleton. Eyes sunk in sockets like burnt holes in a blanket. Those delicate, artist’s hands hand fingers nothing but claws.
I will come back to this at the very end of this series, but encourage the reader to consider it in the light of Pickman’ Model.
Lovecraft’s last substantial essay on scientific topics is Some Backgrounds of Fairyland, in which he attempts to discuss the anthropological roots of fairy legends. Unfortunately, Lovecraft’s grasp of this sort of subject matter was always a bit loose, and this time around is no exception thanks to his endorsement of theories which were regarded as crank pseudoscience at the time (like “Aryans” as being a thing and the whole Margaret Murray Witch-Cult In Western Europe theory about witch legends arisng from the existence of a secret race of dark-skinned dwarves in Europe).
The Horror In the Museum is believed to be almost entirely Lovecraft, and I can certainly believe that. Set in London (though with sufficiently little local colour that it seems likely to have been produced by Lovecraft relying on his books about the place rather than any personal experience of Heald’s), it concerns an eccentric wax museum owner who, for his collection of Great Old One exhibits, went to a lost city in the Arctic and came back with the awful entity Rhan-Tegoth. The character of Orabona another racist “dodgy, treacherous foreign sidekick” deal; the story isfairly simple but works based on its descriptive power, both when it comes to the protagonist’s lonely vigil in the dark and the depiction of Rhan-Tegoth itself.
European Glimpses is a real oddity in Lovecraft’s travel writing – being a revision of some notes on a tour of England, Germany and France undertaken by none other than Sonia Greene, Lovecraft’s ex-wife. It is a light piece which is an easier read than much of Lovecraft’s other travelogues due to him not using his customary archaisms, and ends up mashing up first-hand details gathered by Sonia with Lovecraft’s own interests. For instance, Lovecraft makes much of Sonia’s trip to the Cheshire Cheese pub (my workplace’s local) due to its connection to his beloved Dr. Johnson.
In reading European Glimpses it is hard not to be aware of what is to come. In less than a decade, the London and Paris that Sonia visited would be respectively pounded by air raids and occupied by the Nazis; she would not only witness a Germany mere months away from falling into Hitler’s hands, but actually witness Hitler giving a speech in the flesh. The writeup provided is unflattering to Hitler, characterising him as being willing to say an awful lot of crowd-pleasing stuff but short on substantively enunciated policies, though at the same time the only leader of a uniform-wearing party (in other words, a party with an associated paramilitary wing) who seemed to be able to keep his rabble in some sort of order. The text also notes the large number of political parties in Germany at the time, which in retrospect must have greatly complicated the task of pulling together opposition to Hitler. (Parallels with Trump’s rhetorical style and the massively overstuffed Republican nomination process are, by now, kind of a cliche.)
Come 1933 Lovecraft seems to have found his creativity at a low ebb, and taken to an extensive analysis of the weird fiction genre so as to order his thoughts on it and reawaken his muse. As well as embarking on a revision of Supernatural Horror In Literature, he compiled numerous notes on the plots of classic horror stories and on writing technique, some of which he recast as an article (Notes On Writing Weird Fiction) for an amateur journal.
With FDR on the verge of inauguration as President, Lovecraft also turned his attention to politics. Lovecraft’s political position in later life has been described as moderate socialism, but his arguments presented in Some Repetitions On the Times go in a more sinister direction. Lovecraft reasonably enough repudiates those who balk at socialist policies on the grounds of some ideological libertarianism, pointing out how laissez-faire economics had failed in his time. He further argues that people who see the present system as offering them no way to make a living can’t really be blamed for turning against it and looking for alternates.
Lovecraft espouses some moderate socialist policies here mainly for one reason: opposition to Communism. His assessment is that if nothing is done to address the concerns of the struggling multitudes, they will revolt as a perfectly understandable matter of personal survival. He also makes the point (which I find extremely persuasive) that once you kick off a revolution, it’s anyone’s guess where it will end up and you may find the end results even more dystopian than the starting conditions. Lovecraft posits that if a revolution kicked off in America, there would be very good odds that it’d be hijacked by hardline Communists.
Where Lovecraft loses me is in the character of his objections to Communism, which are basically rooted in the same old traditionalism, racism and elitism that had guided his politics all his life. Lovecraft bluntly characterises Communism in America as being fomented by immigrants pushing “utterly repulsive ideas derived from the slave-heritage of Continental Europe’s under-men”. He advocates moderate socialism specifically as a means of defending traditional cultural values, bemoans the strife that would come from any attempt to “enforce negro social equality”, and among the more self-evident social ills of the Depression he cites formerly-comfortably off families being too poor to maintain themselves in a nice and neatly-dressed and culturally-enriched way, which he considers to inevitably lead to great detriment to the cultural life of the nation. He also seems to have lost faith in democracy, arguing that voters now cast their votes on issues they don’t really understand and that the hidden hand of plutocracy has been running the country for a good while already.
Someone who advocates a sprinkling of socialist policies but sees as their prime social good the reinforcement of conservative values, traditional culture, racial order, and social elitism… someone who doesn’t believe in democracy very much, considers it to be a front for plutocrats, and thinks dictatorial technocrats should run many affairs… someone who is adamant in their opposition to Soviet-style Communism whilst characterising it as a meme carried by dirty immigrant untermensch… do we think of such a person as a moderate socialist? No, because these are the very hallmarks of fascism, particularly in the form in which it had been carried out in Italy for a decade when Lovecraft wrote the essay, and indeed Lovecraft says that “we must expect any adequate government to be of the sort now generally called ‘fascistic’”. The narrative that Lovecraft lightened up his political views in later life may be a pleasing one, but I don’t see that here – I see him latching onto a worldview his own worldview had primed him for, and which would lead to tyranny and disaster. Let’s call him what he was: a fascist fellow-traveller at best, an outright ideological fascist at worst, at least at the point of time when he wrote the essay. (I use the term “ideological fascist” very deliberately, since Lovecraft was reportedly not very keen on actual fascist bullying and intimidation.)
Through the Gates of the Silver Key is an interesting one because out of all of Lovecraft’s collaborative efforts it’s the one that has been most firmly embraced to the heart of the canon, to the point where it’s the only collaborative story that tends to be reprinted in collections that otherwise exclude Lovecraft’s collaborations and revisions. Part of this may come down to it having been devised as a sequel to, as the title implies, The Silver Key; in fact, it originated as unsolicited fanfic from E. Hoffmann Price. Price sent his draft to Lovecraft to seek his permission to go try and get the thing published, and Lovecraft looked at it and decided that if this were going to be added to the Randolph Carter series, it would be in a version he personally was satisfied with.
Given that this is a story that Lovecraft didn’t necessarily want to write but seems to have felt like he had to in order to avoid it being a disaster, it’s a little rough around the edges. It’s a sequel to a story which really wasn’t crying out for a sequel, but it does lead to one of Lovecraft’s most classically pulp-like takes on his Yog-Sothothery, with Randolph Carter getting up to his whacked-out heroics yet again. What the story lacks in polish it makes up for in off-the-wall tripped-out imagery, with Lovecraft letting his imagination run riot to come up with something which ultimately ends up being vaguely reminiscent of the most surreal Clark Ashton Smith stories. What you get as a result of this is a bizarre mashup of planetary romance, science fantasy, Dunsanian allegory and metaphorical quasi-Thelemite account of the journey across Da’ath and establishment of communication with Holy Guardian Angel.
Specifically, at the climactic moment in the story Carter ends up in an extradimensional space having a comfy chat with none other than Yog-Sothoth itself, who reveals that Carter and innumerable other humans and sapient entities are mere extensions of one another (and, it is implied, also extensions of Yog-Sothoth). Naturally, when Carter returns to conventional space he ends up in the wrong extension, resulting in some drastic action in a failed bid to try and correct the issue.
The story’s tendency towards wild adventure and bizarre revelations trying to proffer pseudoscientific reductions of Mythos, along with the new character of de Marigny and a certain weird clock in his possession, ended up paving the road to Brian Lumley’s approach in the later Titus Crow novels, though those tended towards fairly basic sword and sorcery adventure with borrowed Lovecraftian aesthetics and really dull ideas that undermine the cosmic awe rather than increasing it as with here. This is much weirder and more mind-blowing in its implications. In a playful move, Lovecraft tosses in a self-insert of himself in the guise of Ward Phillips – and since the story tells us that all searchers of the weird are on some level extensions of Yog-Sothoth, I guess you can say that Lovecraft is also present in the guise of Yog-Sothoth himself. This may be a crafty joke on Randolph Carter originating as his own self-insert, and if you read it that way the whole Yog-Sothoth conversation ends up a bit like the bit in Cerebus where the eponymous aardvark meets and talks to Dave Sim, only more artfully executed and with less really overwrought misogyny.
Price’s original take on the story, The Lord of Illusion, is still extant; Robert M. Price (no relation to E. Hoffmann so far as I am aware), a Lovecraft scholar of occasionally questionable taste, included the story in his anthology Tales of the Lovecraft Mythos. Much of the pseudoscientific nonsense in the story is already present in the original, as is the plot twist of Carter being reincarnated as someone else who is a different fraction of the same transcendent being as he; what Lovecraft seems to have done in the revision process is add a sense of cosmic vertigo to Carter’s various initiatory experiences and then come up with a truly horrific twist to the basic multiple-incarnations idea, cleverly realising that Hoffmann Price had missed out some very interesting possibilities to it, and also working in the idea that Carter’s higher self wasn’t some benign ur-Carter but Yog-Sothoth itself. Probably the best improvement Lovecraft offers is in the lecture about dimensional physics; it still feels like a bit of a lecture, but in the original it is far, far drier, more like a cozy college tutorial than a confrontation with the infinite. Price’s version of the encounter reminds me, in fact, of the sort of tripe you used to get in very didactic New Age “channelings” from higher entities which have the speaking style of not especially engaging teachers, of the sort that groups like Cosmic Awareness Communications used to flood the weird corners of the web with.
The style of Clark Ashton Smith also hangs heavily over two revisions of stories by R.H. Barlow, a young prodigy who Lovecraft was mentoring as a writer. These tales, The Hoard of the Wizard-Beast and The Slaying of the Monster, were revised a bit by Lovecraft as part of this tutoring; both of them are replete with the combination of bizarre imagery and classic pulp-era sword and sorcery that Smith had made his trademark, as well as conclusions replete with a very Smithian sense of irony. Hoard is a somewhat more substantial story, and Slaying is a fragment; both are a bit too free with the Smithian affectations without giving much sense of having any substantial ideas or aesthetic purpose behind them.
Another story with a strong sword and sorcery influence is Out of the Aeons, Lovecraft’s next revision for Hazel Heald (who is believed to have offered nothing beyond proposing the final plot twist). In fact, arguably the whole story is about the modern-day aftermath of a Smith-esque horror-fantasy story; the ancient realm of K’naa is explicitly cited as existing at the same time as Smith’s long-ago Hyperborea, in fact. This story is notable as mentioning that some of the elder gods may not be so hostile to humanity – though our alleged “friends” are cited as being the likes of Shub-Niggurath and Yig, so that idea may need to be taken with a Cyclopean, non-Euclidean chunk of salt. By far the best part of the story is the tale-within-a-tale that relates the K’naa-era part of the narrative; the modern day component is largely a framing device for this, and includes both some overworn Lovecraft tropes like casting vaguely dubious foreign types as cultists and a fairly basic structural problem (specifically, once you know about the dire curse of Ghatanathoa, the final plot twist is extremely obvious). Still, it’s notable for including cameos from a couple of characters from Through the Gates of the Silver Key.
We now come to The Thing On the Doorstep, notable for being one of the very few stories written entirely by Lovecraft where a major character happens to be a woman – and even then, given that the mysterious Asenath is possessed by the spirit of her dead father, it’s not entirely clear that it counts. (Ephraim, her father, may well be an even more ancient entity and might not even be human – they are referred to in cult circles as “Kamog” – but since Kamog insists that male minds are preferable for the purposes of exerting occult power we have to acknowledge the fact that Kamog’s preference for male hosts means it makes sense to think of Kamog as a “he”.)
A certain amount of the horror of the story does seem to stem from this, and there are therefore some transphobic and/or homophobic implications of the story, and on top of that the fact that Asenath is a Deep One/human hybrid means that Lovecraft’s miscegnation fears also come into play here too. Oddly, Kamog’s griping about the different properties of men’s and women’s minds seem to be an instance of Lovecraft pandering to popular prejudices of the time, since his correspondence reveals that, though a decade earlier he had been dismissive of women’s intellectual powers, by this time Lovecraft had come to the conclusion that women were just as capable as men and blamed their subjugation on “Oriental” influences. Unfortunately, that doesn’t really come across in story, where you can charitably read it as Kamog being needlessly dismissive of women’s occult capabilities or uncharitably read it as women’s minds not being as good for magical purposes.
There’s therefore a lot that is problematic about The Thing On the Doorstep, and even when you set that aside the story rather overplays its hand, telegraphing the basic twist about what’s going on too far in advance. Nonetheless, I find it weirdly fascinating, though more for the developments in Lovecraft’s fictional universe it suggests than for anything that actually happens in the story itself.
For instance, Lovecraft casually drops the fact here that there’s a secret shoggoth base in Maine that Kamog goes to visit whilst puppeteering the body of Asenath’s hapless husband, Edward Derby. When you set this next to the references of the Deep Ones cultivating alliances with oceanic shoggoths in The Shadow Over Innsmouth, it feels like the shoggoths have been gently shifting their sphere of operations from the Antarctic wilderness to much closer to home, which is disturbing enough in its own right. In his raving Derby suggests that there is something specifically disturbing about their shapeshifting process, which makes me wonder what exactly they are doing down there, with the references to “the Pit of the Shoggoths” making me think that it might be something akin to the final horror (or my guess of what the final horror is) in At the Mountains of Madness.
Furthermore, I wonder whether the relationship between Kamog and the shoggoths signifies something more than just a random callback. What if Kamog originated as a shoggoth and used powers of hypnosis to possess a human being so as to go forth as their agent in the world? After all, Asenath/Ephraim/Kamog are supposed to accomplish their body-swapping through hypnosis, which is specifically how the shoggoths were supposed to be controlled in At the Mountains of Madness, and it wouldn’t be outrageous to expect the shoggoths to seek to learn and master hypnosis themselves in order to understand how to resist and rebel against that control. Moreover, the hypnotic influence exerted by the Elder Things allowed shoggoths to change themselves and grow new organs and limbs as needed, so shoggoths would want to learn to do it so that they could change each other when it became necessary. Alternatively, perhaps Kamog is not a shoggoth himself but an ally of theirs – or a master of theirs – who uses powers of hypnosis to guide their shapeshifting according to a mutually beneficial plan.
Before I move on, I just want to add that the passing reference to “Cyclopean ruins in the heart of the Maine woods beneath which vast staircases lead down to abysses of nighted secrets” reminds me a lot of the bit in House of Leaves where there’s the 18th Century document written by explorers in a forest in the region of where the Navidson House is supposed to be, who in their last entry note that they have found mysterious stairs in the woods…
With all these links to other stories, and the prominence of the Innsmouth connection in particular, The Thing On the Doorstep might be the Lovecraft story with the most developed sense of continuity with other stories, like somehow the balance has tipped in the region of the Miskatonic and it is no longer a place of disconnected weird eruptions so much as a bastion of the weird spreading and overcoming the conventional society that overlaid it for a time. (Some real-world occult connections can be noted too; Lovecraft mentions a certain cult leader who, exiled from England, sets themselves up in New York, which puts me in mind of Aleister Crowley’s movements during World War I.) Aside from this, though, the story seems to have a certain autobiographical note to it which should probably be addressed.
It is hard not to look like at a Lovecraft story based around an ill-advised marriage that a gentleman rushes into without having any clue as to what he was getting into and not seeing a certain parallel with Lovecraft’s marriage to Sonia Greene. Asenath’s courtship of Edward is described as predatory, a spot of armchair psychology about Edward experiencing a transfer of dependence from his overbearing mother to Asenath has a sniff of self-awareness about it, and the whole angle about Asenath making these demands of Edward’s body which he’s deeply uncomfortable with kind of call to mind the way Sonia Greene always had to initiate any sexual contact between her and Lovecraft because he just didn’t seem that interested in sex.
That said, some aspects of Derby’s life story seem to resemble a course Lovecraft could have seen himself going down but didn’t. Whilst in both Derby’s case and Lovecraft’s the death of their overbearing mother had a certain liberating effect on them, there’s no evidence that Lovecraft indulged in the sort of scandalous behaviour that Derby is reported as delving into, though his appreciation of “yellow ‘90s” figures like Oscar Wilde or King In Yellow-era Robert Chambers suggests a certain fascination with such behaviour, if only the detached fascination of an anthropologist rather than the jealous fascination of someone who actually wanted to get into all that. Joshi has noted that a curious exception to Lovecraft’s apparent prudery was the odd sort of pride he showed in Thomas Lovecraft, who according to apocryphal family stories was an ancestor who lived such a dissolute lifestyle that he had to sell the ancestral home back in England, an instance which prompted his son Joseph Lovecraft to emigrate to the States and establish the family line there. (Careful investigation suggests that this story is bullshit, but Lovecraft seemed to believe it.)
A last angle on the story which makes it interesting despite its very evident flaws is that it actually seems to contain some kernel of thoughtful, reasonable social commentary that I can get behind. There’s some interesting insights here into willingness of society to overlook signs of abuse so long as an acceptable social facade is maintained. Likewise, something rings true about the way Edward tries to brush over his marital difficulties in public, telling the outside world that Asenath she had gone off for a research trip to New York so as to avoid any scandal associated with her moving out. Lovecraft’s range of life experience might not have been massively broad, but we do know that failed marriages were something he had direct experiences of, and the insight here into how a proud person may want to try to keep up appearances as their marriage disintegrated is powerful.
And lastly, of course, the final horror is a distressing act of domestic violence rendered simultaneously problematic and truly shocking by a blurring of identity between parties. (Part of me wonders whether Lovecraft apprentice Robert Bloch was influenced on some level int eh writing of Psycho by this story, in fact.)
Following The Thing On the Doorstep came The Evil Clergyman, a real oddity essentially built up as a narrative of a dream that Lovecraft had in which he used an object which seems to be partly like a CSI-style UV flashlight, partly like a sonic screwdriver, and then experiences a funny vision and a plot twist. It isn’t especially substantial or interesting.
October 1933 found Lovecraft apparently creatively struck, since over the course of the month he produced several fragments in rather disparate styles, as though he were tinkering about with different approaches and ideas to see if inspiration struck him. Three of these four pieces were later utilised by August Derleth in producing the novel The Lurker At the Threshold, but the actual Lovecraft text exploited in that novel is sufficiently slight, especially when assessed as a proportion of the total text, that Derleth’s contention that it is a lost Lovecraft novel which he finished is simply untrue, a misrepresentation perhaps driven by the recognition that Lovecraft’s name was a better draw than Derleth’s own, and that people would be more excited by the piece if they thought it was mostly written by Lovecraft. If you look at the pieces in question, they are so different from each other and have absolutely no overlap, so the idea that Lovecraft was considering using all of them in the same single story cannot possibly be substantiated by them.
The first of these pieces, The Round Tower, constitutes mere notes on a location for use in writing a story, rather than a snippet of story or story outline; in The Lurker At the Threshold Derleth utilises the location but is forced to write his own description of it by the sparseness of these notes.. One aspect Lovecraft makes a lot of but which isn’t given so much significance in Lurker is a certain symbol over the door of the tower. This has a certain resonance because towers with dire symbols over their doors seem to be a recurring theme in Lovecraft stories, particularly The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath, wherein the various levels of the Dreamlands are connected by a circular stone tower with the Sign of Koth above its entrance. It seems like that this piece constituted notes for writing a story about an entrance to this tower in our own world, which makes me wonder whether it is supposed to be a Yggdrasil-like structure linking different “planes” of the Lovecraftian cosmos. What does it imply about the world if its central spine is artificial?
The second fragment, The Rose Window, constitutes somewhat more developed notes towards a story, with location details and a description of the titular window combined with a vague plot concerning how the window was produced under the direction of those Outside to give them sneaky peeks into our world. Derleth didn’t use that plot element for The Lurker At the Threshold, merely riffing on the window idea, but he would return to the rose window motif in several subsequent stories, including The Watchers Out of Time – a story left unfinished when Derleth died and might have been an attempt to finally use that specific plot idea.
The last fragment used in The Lurker At the Threshold, and the only one to be extensively quoted therein, is Of Evill Sorceries Done In New-England, of Daemons In No Humane Shape. As the cumbersome title implies, it is written as an extract from an old chronicle of early Colonial folklore, of the sort produced by Cotton Mather; in other words, it’s a clue that Lovecraft never got around to building a full story around. The narrative tells of the naughtiness of a colonist sorcerer who tried to summon a spawn of Tsathoggua, which was sealed away by some heroic Native Americans whose leader rocked up to a local dignitary and was like “‘sup, solved your Tsathoggua problem, just don’t mess with the stone we put there to seal it away, OK?” (In an example of Derleth exacerbating Lovecraft’s issues with race in his work, in his respinning of the piece for Lurker the shaman was turned into a bad guy.)
The Book is the most developed of the fragments of this time (and the only one not cannibalised by Derleth). The portion written is essentially a prose reimagining of the first three sonnets in Fungi From Yuggoth, and it’s even possible that Lovecraft was intending to incorporate more of the cycle into the story, since the narrator suggests that he has incoherently bounced around the cosmos a fair bit; either way, the fragment stops more or less where the third sonnet of Fungi stops, Lovecraft perhaps realising at that point that he still didn’t have a strong plan for where to go from there. Still, it’s an interesting stylistic experiment; in presenting the bizarre ramblings of a practitioner of wizardry who isn’t brilliant at explaining to a lay audience what they are doing, it feels like a cousin of Machen’s The White People, though in this case the obfuscation comes not from the narrator being a small child who doesn’t appreciate the gravity of what they are narrating but from the narrator alluding to an extensive body of occult knowledge (such as guardians who possess your shadow and accompany you thereafter) that the reader does not possess.
It’s from around this time that Lovecraft’s final public political writings take place. A Layman Looks At the Government finds Lovecraft again making a strong case that voluntary intervention by private business is not the solution to mass poverty, and again expressing a certain enthusiasm for fascism. When Lovecraft talks about the “sources of the needed change” he argues for the intervention of cultivated aristocratic-academic sorts as fascistic leaders, with Franklin D. Roosevelt and Oswald Moseley cited as examples. Take this passage in particular:
Indeed, the salvation of society really depends on the faithful and diligent services of disinterested gentlemen – since the inflamed masses without leaders can only tear down without building up. The people as a whole are densely and hopelessly ignorant – mere blind forces either cowed to silent suffering or bursting into resistless fury under too much goading – hence democracy is and always will be a joke… or a tragedy. Salvation rests wholly with the trained man of vision and cultivation without the profit motive – namely, the fascistic leader.
This, to me, represents unarguable proof that Lovecraft’s lifelong elitism remained a major part of his political thought across the entire span of his adult life. Moreover, I think there’s also a whiff of egotism about it. What Lovecraft admires in the fascist leader is that he is a disinterested aristocratic sort who doesn’t especially care about profit or making money as a motive and is simply naturally better than most people by dint of a cultivated upbringing. In other words, Lovecraft’s ideal fascist leader was basically an idealised version of himself, who could naturally be trusted to run society in a way beneficial for gentlemen who didn’t want to be bothered by such trifling considerations as “making a living” or “paying the bills” because they were too smart for that shit.
In his last major political essay, The Journal and the New Deal, Lovecraft offers a somewhat more palatable position. He draws amusing parallels between the chirping of those trying to say that socialistic measures were un-Constitutional and un-American and the sorts of objections raised by American opponents of the Revolutionary War, constructing an argument which has a certain relevance today. He derides Hitler and Stalin alike as seeking too much control over people’s personal lives, artistic expression, and so on and so forth, and makes it clear that his advocacy for dictatorial central authority extends nigh-exclusively to economic matters, which sounds fine in theory but suffers in practice when you note that the border between economic affairs and everything else isn’t necessarily something you can precisely and clearly delineate.
Indeed, given the massive realignment of society he advocates in A Layman Looks At the Government, along with its advocacy of such reforms as restricting voting rights to a limited elite, the establishment of a new aristocracy, and declarations like “With the competitive material struggle subordinated as an interest, it is likely that no opposition would be made to the setting of intellectual and aesthetic standards by those most naturally active in the given fields, and to the administration of government by those most obviously qualified”, it seems pretty clear to me that Lovecraft actually wanted his personal vision of fascistic socialism applied to spheres extending well beyond what we would regard as the purely economic, making his insistence in The Journal and the New Deal that he only wants dictatorial power to be applied to economics seem not entirely sincere when taken in the wider context of other contemporary political thoughts of his.
Joshi argues that by 1936 Lovecraft seemed to have finally given up on elitism; in his correspondence he notes that he believed in aristocracy only because he prized the personal qualities he thought aristocracy encouraged, and he had come to the conclusion that those qualities could just as well be encouraged in a socialist system which offered good education, minimal economic stress, and put its citizens in a position to exercise those qualities. He likewise seems to have lost all appetite for fascism, talking about fascist or Nazi “compromises” with plutocrats as being a danger to the development of the sort of universal social and economic justice he advocated in his last days. It is a shame that he never wrote any updated political essay for public consumption reflecting these updated views.
We now come to a string of revisions and collaborations. The Horror In the Burying Ground is the last bit of ghost-writing work Lovecraft would produce for Hazel Heald, and it isn’t especially notable. It’s a rather conventional rural ghost story with no Mythos content, and another piece which is somewhat undermined by major elements being signposted so well in advance that the last half of the tale is very predictable.
The Tree On the Hill is a revision by Lovecraft of a story by Duane W. Rimel. The titular tree is a sort of outpost of eldritch outside realms, and confers strange dreams on those who doze beneath it. Our narrator encounters the tree and relates this, plus various observations and some photos he took, to one Constantine Theunis, who seems to be Rimel’s take on the whole “occult detective” thing as exemplified by Algernon Blackwood’s John Silence or William Hope Hodgson’s Carnacki the Ghost-Finder stories (he also appears in Rimel’s story The Jewels of Charlotte). This is a character type who, as we shall see when we get to discussing Supernatural Horror In Literature, Lovecraft didn’t have much affection for, and in fact Lovecraft is pretty brusque in dealing with Theunis’ own intervention into the story, with the result that the ending is a bit rushed and anticlimactic.
As far as Lovecraft’s particular contributions to the story, you have a nasty vision of three glowing eyes which puts me in mind of the “three-lobed burning eye” from The Haunter of the Dark, and there’s some stuff about a sinister shadow which puts me in mind of The Book and some allusions to Shub-Niggurath, but otherwise Lovecraft doesn’t seem to have invested this with much of a personal touch.
The Battle That Ended the Century is another collaboration between Lovecraft and R.H. Barlow. The titular battle is, in fact, a boxing match, set in the futuristic year of 2001 in Cohen’s Garage, a (possibly antisemiticly-named) structure on the former site of New York. The story is replete with attempts at culture shock (see the Tibetan lama providing auguries on the outcome of the fight), as well as Lovecraft Circle in-jokes; Barlow had originally written the story and named all the characters after individuals from the Weird Tales crowd and surrounding fandom, but Lovecraft thought it would be more fun to replace all the names with various suitable nicknames. Thus, one of the fighters is referred to as “Two-Gun Bob of the Plains”, which was Lovecraft’s pet name for Robert E. Howard bestowed in honour of his rip-roaring stories about life in cowpoke country, and the general style makes me feel like Lovecraft and Barlow were offering an affectionate spoof of the boxing stories Howard was turfing out just as fast as the pulps would buy them.
Other cameos include Bill Lum Li, the lama, who is a disguised William Lumley (cast in the rule due to his occult beliefs), Frank Chimesleep Short Jr. who is of course Frank Belknap Long Jr., and one “Effjay of Akkamin” who “expressed his frenzied disgust at the technique of the combatants, at the same time peddling photographs of the fighters (with himself in the foreground) at five cents each” which must be a snipe at Forrest J. Ackerman, who would go on to be a significant editor, literary agent of various pulp writers including L. Ron Hubbard, and arguably the inventor of cosplay as a SF convention activity. August Derleth’s incredible gift for turning out text and occasional mainstream literary ambitions are spoofed when the duo note that “Throughout the event notes were taken by M. le Comte d’Erlette for a 200-volume novel-cycle in the Proustian manner”. Artists working in the field were not immune either: in particular, Margaret Brundage, whose bondage-themed Weird Tales covers were such an odd quirk of the magazine, is immortalised as “eminent magazine-cover anatomist Mrs. M. Blunderage” who “portrayed the battlers as a pair of spirited nudes behind a thin veil of conveniently curling tobacco-smoke”.
As you’d expect, the whole thing is amazingly silly, perhaps the silliest thing Lovecraft had a hand in since Sweet Ermengarde. Lovecraft and Barlow must have decided that the end result was simultaneously too funny not to share but too cheeky to put their names to, so the pair arranged for some fifty copies of the story to be mailed out, anonymously and with no author by-line, to their various contacts in fandom, with the mailings originating from Washington, D.C. so they wouldn’t be connected to either of them. Both denied involvement, but their archived correspondence captures the two discussing the matter and its aftermath in sniggering tones.
Lovecraft, of course, had far more to say about the horror scene than silly spoofs; over the the past decade or so, he had been tinkering on an off-and-on basis on his great essay on the subject, Supernatural Horror In Literature, which we’ll be taking a look at at the start of the following, final part of this series.