Early novelists like Cervantes, Fielding and Dickens managed to achieve both broad popularity and critical respect. In the 20th century, however, fiction became split between serious, high-brow fiction and low-brow, pulp fiction. High-brow novelists like Joyce and Proust made demands on the reader that many people couldn’t accept. Pulp fiction appealed to readers who weren’t attracted to high-brow fiction, who wanted entertaining fiction.
In this issue, I’m going to discuss several low-brow writers, beginning with H. P. Lovecraft, who’s known for his horror stories. If you’re inclined to dismiss horror stories, consider that many renowned writers have written in this genre — Poe, Hawthorne, Stevenson, Kipling, Wilde, etc. Consider also that some of the masters of this genre — Arthur Machen, for example — have written acclaimed works in other genres.
When I moved to Providence in 1995, I had never heard of H. P. Lovecraft. When I started hearing his name, I thought that I wasn’t interested in a writer of horror stories. Recently, however, I took a walking tour of Lovecraft-related places in Providence, and that inspired me to read two of his stories, “The Shunned House” and “The Haunter of the Dark.”1 I soon became a Lovecraft fan. He has a deep connection to Providence, a strong sense of place, history, and architecture, he writes superb prose, and his stories hold your attention. I look forward to reading more of his stories and also some of his essays. Many of his writings are available online for free.
Lovecraft was an only child, and a sickly child; his mother often kept him home, and he rarely went to school. He never finished high school, and had no career besides story-writing. “The adult Lovecraft was gaunt with dark eyes set in a very pale face (he rarely went abroad before nightfall).”2 He read widely; one of his favorites was Poe, and he also read Nietzsche. Lovecraft was briefly married to a Jewish woman, Sonia Greene, but didn’t have children. His life was largely solitary, but he had a network of correspondents, many of whom were fellow writers of horror and fantasy. It is said that he wrote more letters than anyone in history, with the exception of Voltaire.
When money ran low, he preferred to skip eating rather than to skip buying stamps. He depended partly on an inheritance, which was used up at the time of his death. (I was reminded of Kierkegaard, who also depended on an inheritance, and who used the last chunk of the inheritance just before he died. Lovecraft and Kierkegaard seemed to sense how long they’d live, and seemed to match their expenditures to their allotted time.)
Lovecraft never wrote a full-length novel; he wrote stories and novellas for pulp magazines like Weird Tales and Amazing Stories. Lovecraft made some money from his stories, and also from revising the works of others, and “ghost writing” for others. One of his customers was Houdini, the famous magician.
Lovecraft’s stories were inspired by earlier horror writers, such as Poe, and also by his own inner demons. Wikipedia says he was
|overwhelmed by feelings of anxiety by 8 years old.... Beginning in his early life, Lovecraft is believed to have suffered from night terrors... he believed himself to be assaulted at night by horrific “night gaunts.” Much of his later work is thought to have been directly inspired by these terrors.|
Lovecraft died of cancer in 1937 at the age of 46. “In accordance with his lifelong scientific curiosity, he kept a diary of his illness until close to the moment of his death.” His scientific bent is apparent in his stories, which often scoff at “popular superstition,” and try to provide a material explanation for ghosts and other occult phenomena.
The horror genre merges into science fiction and fantasy. These genres seem to attract people with a scientific/rationalist/materialist/atheist bent. In the last issue, we discussed how Poe had a firm understanding of the occult. Lovecraft, on the other hand, seems to pride himself on his grasp of modern science, and he seems to have little understanding of the occult, and little respect for the occult. He described his worldview in a letter to Robert E. Howard:
|All I say is that I think it is damned unlikely that anything like a central cosmic will, a spirit world, or an eternal survival of personality exist. They are the most preposterous and unjustified of all the guesses which can be made about the universe, and I am not enough of a hairsplitter to pretend that I don’t regard them as arrant and negligible moonshine. In theory I am an agnostic, but pending the appearance of radical evidence I must be classed, practically and provisionally, as an atheist.|
On Lovecraft’s grave in Swan Point Cemetery is inscribed a quote from one of his letters: “I am Providence.” Providence hosts various Lovecraft tours and conferences; Lovecraft fans travel to Providence as Muslims travel to Mecca. On the Lovecraft plaque is inscribed a poem he wrote:
I never can be tied to raw, new things,
For I first saw the light in an old town,
Where from my window huddled roofs sloped down
To a quaint harbor rich with visionings.
Streets with carved doorways where the sunset beams
Flooded old fanlights and small window-panes,
And Georgian steeples topped with gilded vanes —
These were the sights that shaped my childhood dreams.
Lovecraft had a special fondness for Ipswich, Salem, Marblehead, Newburyport, etc.; this area is sometimes called “Lovecraft Country.” Lovecraft’s “Arkham” seems to be based on Salem; Lovecraft spoke of “witch-cursed, legend-haunted Arkham,” with its “huddled, sagging gambrel roofs and crumbling Georgian balustrades.” Lovecraft’s story “The Unnameable” is set in Arkham/Salem. Lovecraft said that “Innsmouth” was “a considerably twisted version of Newburyport”; it’s the setting of “The Shadow over Innsmouth.” Lovecraft’s “Kingsport” is based on Marblehead. Lovecraft was especially fond of Marblehead, and said, “If I weren’t attached to Providence by nativity and lifelong residence, I’d like to live in ancient Marblehead.... You must see Marblehead for yourself!” Lovecraft spoke of the “endless labyrinths of steep, narrow, crooked streets” in Marblehead/Kingsport, and its “fanlights and small-paned windows.” Lovecraft visited Marblehead 20 times between 1922 and 1936 (he died in 1937). Lovecraft described his story “The Festival” as “a sincere attempt to capture the feeling that Marblehead gave me when I saw it for the first time—at sunset under the snow, Dec. 17, 1922.”
Lovecraft had a fondness for the old and an aversion for the new. Sometimes he called himself an “antiquarian.” He published 13 issues of his own magazine, which he called The Conservative. Lovecraft agreed with Spengler that the modern West was decadent; Wikipedia speaks of his “anti-modern worldview.” He was fond of England, and lamented the American Revolution. He also lamented the influx of non-English immigrants; Wikipedia speaks of his “racial nativism that jars with modern sensibilities.... In his published essays, private letters and personal utterances, he argued for a strong color line, for the purpose of preserving race and culture.”
One of the first biographies of Lovecraft was written in 1975 by L. Sprague de Camp. More recently, the prominent Lovecraft scholar S. T. Joshi wrote a two-volume Lovecraft biography, I Am Providence: The Life and Times of H.P. Lovecraft (originally published in one volume under the title H. P. Lovecraft: A Life; also published in abridged form as A Dreamer & A Visionary: H. P. Lovecraft in His Time). Joshi also edited a Lovecraft autobiography, Lord of a Visible World: An Autobiography in Letters. And Joshi edited Caverns Measureless to Man: 18 Memoirs of Lovecraft. Two Providence writers who knew Lovecraft, Clifford and Muriel Eddy, wrote The Gentleman From Angell Street: Memories of H. P. Lovecraft. Lovecraft’s New York friend, Frank Belknap Long, wrote Howard Phillips Lovecraft: Dreamer on the Night Side.
For fifteen years, Lovecraft corresponded with a California writer named Clark Ashton Smith, who’s known for his horror/fantasy writings. According to Wikipedia, “Smith was one of ‘the big three of Weird Tales, along with Robert E. Howard and H. P. Lovecraft.’” Though the three writers corresponded, they never met, perhaps because Lovecraft lived in Providence, Howard in Texas, and Smith in California.
If Lovecraft had little formal education, Smith had even less. Smith suffered from “psychological disorders,” dropped out of middle school, and never went to high school. “Like Lovecraft, he drew upon the nightmares that had plagued him during youthful spells of sickness.” He was an “insatiable reader,” read dictionaries and encyclopedias, and had the ability to remember everything he read.
As a teenager, he read his poetry at a literary club. His listeners were impressed, and referred him to San Francisco’s men of letters. When he was 19, a collection of his poems, The Star Treader, was published and was well received. For the next ten years, Smith concentrated on poetry. One of Smith’s patrons was Albert Bender, who was also a patron of Ansel Adams and Diego Rivera.
|Smith briefly moved among the circle that included Ambrose Bierce and Jack London, but his early fame soon faded away.... [He lived] in a small cabin built by his parents.... Smith was poor for most of his life and often did hard manual jobs such as fruit-picking and wood-cutting in order to support himself and his parents. He was an able cook and made many kinds of wine. He also did well-digging, typing, and journalism.|
Smith turned from poetry to fiction in order to make money. He said that writing prose was “a hateful task, for a poet, and [one which] wouldn’t be necessary in any true civilization.” At age 44, Smith stopped writing fiction, perhaps because he was depressed by the deaths of his parents, by Howard’s 1936 suicide, and by Lovecraft’s 1937 death from cancer. Smith spent much of his later life sculpting, painting, and drawing. Smith was born in 1893, three years after Lovecraft, and died in 1961.
Lovecraft wrote an essay called “Supernatural Horror in Literature,” which surveyed the development of the genre. Edmund Wilson said that Lovecraft’s essay was “a really able piece of work... He had read comprehensively in this field — he was strong on the Gothic novelists — and writes about it with much intelligence.” Lovecraft begins his essay thus:
|The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown. These facts few psychologists will dispute, and their admitted truth must establish for all time the genuineness and dignity of the weirdly horrible tale as a literary form.|
Lovecraft discusses four “modern masters” of the ghost story: Lord Dunsany, M. R. James, Arthur Machen, and Algernon Blackwood.
When Dunsany toured the U.S., Lovecraft heard him and was much impressed by him. Dunsany was born about ten years before Lovecraft, out-lived Lovecraft, and died at age 79. Dunsany was perhaps the only writer who influenced Lovecraft as much as Poe did. Lovecraft wrote modestly, “There are my ‘Poe’ pieces and my ‘Dunsany’ pieces — but alas — where are my Lovecraft pieces?”
According to Wikipedia, in 1905, Dunsany “burst onto the publishing scene with the well-received collection The Gods of Pegana.” In 1922, Dunsany published his first novel, Don Rodriguez: Chronicles of Shadow Valley. In 1924, he published his second novel, The King of Elfland’s Daughter, which Wikipedia describes as “a return to his early style of writing... considered by many to be Dunsany’s finest novel and a classic in the realm of fantasy writing.”
|One of Dunsany’s best-known characters was Joseph Jorkens, an obese middle-aged raconteur who frequented the fictional Billiards Club in London, and who would tell fantastic stories if someone would buy him a large whiskey and soda. From his tales, it was obvious that Mr. Jorkens had travelled to all seven continents, was extremely resourceful, and well-versed in world cultures, but always came up short on becoming rich and famous. The Jorkens books, which sold well, were among the first of a type which was to become popular in fantasy and science fiction writing: extremely improbable “club tales” told at a gentleman’s club or bar.3|
Like Poe and Lovecraft, Dunsany wrote poetry as well as fiction.
Dunsany was born into the Irish aristocracy, and spent much of his life at Ireland’s oldest castle, Dunsany Castle, which dates back to 1080. He was part of the Irish Literary Revival, he donated to the Abbey Theater, and he was friends with Yeats, Lady Gregory, Padraic Colum, George William Russell (“A.E.”), Oliver St. John Gogarty (“Buck Mulligan”), etc.4 His youth was divided between England and Ireland; some of his relatives were English. In his later years, Dunsany spent most of his time in England, where he was friends with Kipling. Dunsany was an avid hunter and athlete, and he fought in both the Boer War and World War I.
The science-fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke was a fan of Dunsany, and corresponded with him. Clarke’s Tales from the White Hart was inspired by Dunsany’s “club tales.” Dunsany was also a favorite of the fantasy writer Robert E. Howard. Jorge Luis Borges, who’s sometimes classed as a fantasy writer, compared Dunsany to Kafka.
M. R. James was born in 1862, so he was an established writer when Lovecraft was just starting. James was an administrator at Cambridge and Eton, a medieval scholar, and an antiquarian (did James’ example strengthen Lovecraft’s antiquarian tendencies?). James liked to read his ghost stories to friends at Christmas-time; he had a flair for acting. In 1904, he published his first story collection, Ghost Stories of An Antiquary. He’s sometimes called the father of the antiquarian ghost story. He wrote stories, not novels. When asked if he believed in the existence of ghosts, James said that he kept an open mind, and would consider the evidence. James was a fan of Sheridan Le Fanu, an earlier writer of ghost stories. His stories have been published by Penguin Classics (the editor of the Penguin version is S. T. Joshi).
D. H. Lawrence called his native Nottinghamshire “the country of my heart.” Lovecraft might have said the same thing about Providence, and Machen about Monmouthshire (in Wales). “The beautiful landscape of Monmouthshire, with its associations of Celtic, Roman, and medieval history, made a powerful impression on [Machen], and his love of it is at the heart of many of his works.”5
Machen was a contemporary of M. R. James. Unlike James, he wrote in various genres. He studied the legends of King Arthur and the Holy Grail, and he drew on these legends in his novel The Secret Glory. His autobiographical novel The Hill of Dreams is often called his masterpiece. In this novel, a young dreamer imagines Wales in Roman times; later he goes to London to seek his fortune as a writer. Machen’s novella The Great God Pan is considered a classic horror tale; Stephen King called it, “Maybe the best in the English language.” Among Machen’s other horror tales, “The White People” and “The Novel of the Black Seal” are especially well-regarded. Machen wrote three volumes of autobiography: Far Off Things, Things Near and Far, and The London Adventure.
Machen was interested in the occult, and he was a member of The Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, which grew out of the Freemasons and the Rosicrucians. Other members of this Order included Yeats, Bram Stoker, and Algernon Blackwood.
|Machen’s strong opposition to a materialistic viewpoint is obvious in many of his works, marking him as part of neo-romanticism. He was deeply suspicious of science, materialism, commerce, and Puritanism, all of which were anathema to Machen’s conservative, bohemian, mystical, and ritualistic temperament.|
Apparently Machen satirized materialism in his book Dr Stiggins: His Views and Principles.
Machen felt that literature should convey ecstasy. For Machen, ecstasy meant “rapture, beauty, adoration, wonder, awe, mystery, sense of the unknown, desire for the unknown.” He wrote a critical work called Hieroglyphics: A Note upon Ecstasy in Literature.
Lovecraft was influenced by Machen; for example, “The Dunwich Horror” was influenced by Machen’s Great God Pan. Lovecraft called Machen, “master of an exquisitely lyrical and expressive prose style.” Among Machen’s other admirers were Wilde, Yeats, Arthur Conan Doyle, Aleister Crowley, and Borges. Through Borges, Machen influenced Magical Realism.
Blackwood was born in 1869, a few years after M. R. James and Arthur Machen. He led a varied life, working as a dairy farmer in Canada, a newspaper reporter in New York City, a hotel operator, a bartender, a model, a violin teacher, etc. Blackwood was a prolific writer; he published ten short-story collections, and fourteen novels. A story-collection called Incredible Adventures is particularly esteemed. Among Blackwood’s most famous stories are “The Willows,” “The Wendigo,” and “An Episode in a Lodging House.” Lovecraft spoke of, “Algernon Blackwood, amidst whose voluminous and uneven work may be found some of the finest spectral literature of this or any age.”
While American writers of horror/fantasy were often rationalists and materialists, English writers like Machen and Blackwood were receptive to the occult. Blackwood was a member of The Ghost Club as well as The Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn. “Like his lonely but fundamentally optimistic protagonists, [Blackwood] was a combination of mystic and outdoorsman; when he wasn’t steeping himself in occultism... he was likely to be skiing or mountain climbing.” Perhaps ‘the country of his heart’ was the Swiss Alps, and it was there that Blackwood’s ashes were scattered.
Like Poe and Schopenhauer, Blackwood believed that the occult revealed a new aspect of reality, leading to a new worldview and a revolution in human culture.6 Blackwood wrote,
|My fundamental interest, I suppose, is signs and proofs of other powers that lie hidden in us all; the extension, in other words, of human faculty.... I believe it possible for our consciousness to change and grow, and that with this change we may become aware of a new universe.|
According to Wikipedia, Blackwood’s novels Julius LeVallon and The Bright Messenger “deal with reincarnation and the possibility of a new, mystical evolution in human consciousness.” Henry Miller said that The Bright Messenger is “the most extraordinary novel on psychoanalysis, one that dwarfs the subject.”
The Good Samaritan
A certain man went down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell among thieves, which stripped him of his raiment, and wounded him, and departed, leaving him half dead. And by chance there came down a certain priest that way: and when he saw him, he passed by on the other side. And likewise a Levite, when he was at the place, came and looked on him, and passed by on the other side. But a certain Samaritan, as he journeyed, came where he was: and when he saw him, he had compassion on him, and went to him, and bound up his wounds... and set him on his own beast, and brought him to an inn. (Luke 10, 30-34)
Christ’s Charge to Peter
Raphael here combines the two New Testament passages on which the Catholic Church bases its authority. In Matthew 16:18-19, Peter is given the keys to the kingdom of heaven. In John 21:15-17, Jesus orders Peter three times to feed the sheep — making it obvious that he actually charges Peter to take care of the believers. The work is also known as The Handing-over of the Keys.8
The Conversion of St. Paul
As he journeyed, he came near Damascus: and suddenly there shined round about him a light from heaven. And he fell to the earth, and heard a voice saying unto him, Saul, Saul, why persecutest thou me? And he said, Who art thou, Lord? And the Lord said, I am Jesus whom thou persecutest. (Acts, 9, 4)
Christ in the House of Martha and Mary
He entered into a certain village: and a certain woman named Martha received him into her house. And she had a sister called Mary, which also sat at Jesus’ feet, and heard his word. But Martha was cumbered about much serving, and came to him, and said, Lord, dost thou not care that my sister hath left me to serve alone? bid her therefore that she help me. And Jesus answered and said unto her, Martha, Martha, thou art careful and troubled about many things: But one thing is needful: and Mary hath chosen that good part, which shall not be taken away from her. (Luke 10, 38-42)
The Agony in the Garden
Then cometh Jesus with them unto a place called Gethsemane, and saith unto the disciples, Sit ye here, while I go and pray yonder. And he took with him Peter and the two sons of Zebedee, and began to be sorrowful and very heavy. Then saith he unto them, My soul is exceeding sorrowful, even unto death: tarry ye here, and watch with me. And he went a little farther, and fell on his face, and prayed, saying, O my Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me: nevertheless not as I will, but as thou wilt. (Matthew 26, 36-39)
The Death of Ananias
A certain man named Ananias, with Sapphira his wife, sold a possession, and kept back part of the price, his wife also being privy to it, and brought a certain part, and laid it at the apostles’ feet. But Peter said, Ananias, why hath Satan filled thine heart to lie to the Holy Ghost, and to keep back part of the price of the land? And Ananias hearing these words fell down, and gave up the ghost: and great fear came on all them that heard these things. And the young men arose, wound him up, and carried him out, and buried him. (Acts 5, 1-6)
Scenes from the Passion of Christ
Memling combined all passages from the Passion into one painting, adding the Resurrection and three appearances, creating a total of 23 scenes on one small panel.9
Jan Brueghel the Elder
And Noah was six hundred years old when the flood of waters was upon the earth. And Noah went in, and his sons, and his wife, and his sons’ wives with him, into the ark, because of the waters of the flood. Of clean beasts, and of beasts that are not clean, and of fowls, and of every thing that creepeth upon the earth, there went in two and two unto Noah into the ark, the male and the female, as God had commanded Noah. And it came to pass after seven days, that the waters of the flood were upon the earth.... And the rain was upon the earth forty days and forty nights. (Genesis 7, 6-12)
Abraham and Isaac
And Abraham stretched forth his hand, and took the knife to slay his son. And the angel of the Lord called unto him out of heaven, and said, Abraham, Abraham: and he said, Here am I. And he said, Lay not thine hand upon the lad, neither do thou any thing unto him: for now I know that thou fearest God, seeing thou hast not withheld thy son, thine only son from me. (Genesis 22, 10-12)
|1.|| The tour was organized by the Rhode Island Historical Society. “The Shunned House” takes place on Benefit Street, “The Haunter of the Dark” on Federal Hill.
Later I read “The Horror at Red Hook,” which Lovecraft described as “rather long and rambling, and I don’t think it is very good.” I agree with Lovecraft’s assessment. “Red Hook” has several traits that we find in Lovecraft’s other stories: smooth prose, learning, horror, and a deep dislike of non-white races. back
|2.|| Wikipedia back|
|3.|| Wikipedia. According to the Weekly Standard, “Anthologies of English ghost stories frequently begin with Elizabeth Gaskell’s ‘The Old Nurse’s Story’ (1852).... Edith Wharton stands preeminent among American women writers of ghost stories.” back|
|4.|| One wonders what Joyce and Dunsany thought of each other. Perhaps Joyce thought Dunsany too light, and Dunsany thought Joyce too heavy, too avant-garde. back|
|5.|| Wikipedia back|
|6.|| I discussed Poe and Schopenhauer in the last issue. back|
|8.|| www.artbible.info/art/large/683.html back|