Ancient Nantucket

The second half of my outing, though, was the real climax—since this was nothing more or less than a trip to ancient Nantucket, which I had never seen before, though it lies only 90 miles (6 hrs. by coach & boat) from my own doorstep.

The folder I sent has probably given you some idea of the place. And what a place! Nowhere else—Charleston, Quebec, Salem, or Newport—has the past survived so perfectly. The old town is exactly as it was a century ago—cobblestoned streets with colonial houses, windmill, hitching-posts, horse-blocks, & silver doorplates, picturesque lanes & wharves—everything pertaining to the bygone days of whaling prosperity. The island was settled in 1660, & formed part of New York till 1692, since then it has belonged to Massachusetts. Whaling made it great, & the decline of that industry caused its decline. Summer vacationists have preserved & restored it. I explored all the old streets, museums, windmill, &c. minutely, & saw Saturn & his ring through the glass of the Maria Mitchell observatory. A bus trip around the island took me to the quaint former fishing village of Siasconset. In covering the suburbs of the town I used a hired bicycle—the first time I’d ridden a wheel in 20 years. It quite rejuvenated me! I had a 3d floor room during my week’s stay—with a fine view of town, harbour, & sea.

DESCRIPTION: In a letter to Clark Ashton Smith, a fellow writer and poet who was one of his closest friends, Lovecraft describes his recent trip to the island of Nantucket, one of many places along the Eastern Seaboard he visited in search of Colonial relics.

CITATION: Lovecraft, H. P. “To Clark Ashton Smith.” 8 Sept. 1934. Dawnward Spire, Lonely Hill: The Letters of H. P. Lovecraft and Clark Ashton Smith. Edited by David E. Schultz and S. T. Joshi, Hippocampus Press, 2017, pp. 565-7.


Disgusted at Much of My Older Work

I am at a sort of standstill in writing—disgusted at much of my older work, and uncertain as to avenues of improvement. In recent weeks I have done a tremendous amount of experimenting in different styles and perspectives, but have destroyed most of the results. The one tale I have finished—“The Thing on the Doorstep”—is now starting on a circulation round which will include you. You’ll get it from Smith, and can forward it to Price. During the summer the Knopf firm broached the idea of issuing a book of my stuff, but it all fell through like the Putnam fiasco of 1931. More recently a man in Asotin, Wash.—one F. Lee Baldwin—has proposed the publication of my “Colour Out of Space” as a separate booklet. I have gladly acquiesced, though I doubt if much will come of the matter.

DESCRIPTION: In a letter to his friend and fellow writer Robert E. Howard, Lovecraft expresses his dissatisfaction with his “older work” and laments his inability, despite his best efforts, to write anything better.

CITATION: Lovecraft, H. P. “To Robert E. Howard.” 2 Nov. 1933. A Means to Freedom: The Letters of H. P. Lovecraft and Robert E. Howard. Edited by S. T. Joshi, David E. Schultz, and Rusty Burke, vol. 2, Hippocampus Press, 2009, pp. 654-86.

Only Two Really Good Stories

To have lived to my age without producing more than two really good stories (Colour—Zann) or more than ten even fair ones, is to have demonstrated rather lamentably that fiction isn’t in one’s line. I was probably right in 1908 when I decided that systematic good production was beyond me, and destroyed all but two of the tales written up to then.

DESCRIPTION: In a letter to his young friend J. Vernon Shea, Lovecraft dismisses his own work, which, in his opinion, consists of only “two really good stories” and no more than ten “fair ones.”

CITATION: Lovecraft, H. P. “To J. Vernon Shea.” 19 Nov. 1931. Letters to J. Vernon Shea, Carl F. Strauch, and Lee McBride White. Edited by S. T. Joshi and David E. Schultz, Hippocampus Press, 2016, p. 81.

Pontifical Hokum

Sorry “The Blue Stone” didn’t land—but I don’t think much of Wright’s comments. They sound like the showy & would-be-impressive routine stuff which he reels off thoughtlessly by the yard in order to sound like a discriminating connoisseur. Sometimes, in dealing out this pontifical hokum, he gets forgetful & contradicts himself. What really prompts his rather capricious rejections is his belief that the tales in question don’t follow the conventional popular formula. In flaw-picking Wright sometimes becomes so pedantic & carping that his dicta lose all common sense. Thus in the matter of the phrase “cosmic ecstasy”. It ought to be plain to any person of reasonably developed imagination that cosmic ecstasy signifies a hypothetical state of intense emotional excitement or exaltation caused by the impingement on the senses & consciousness of utterly non-human & non-terrestrial impressions from ultimate outer space. That is, cosmic ecstasy is what would occur if any normal human being were faced with even a moment’s perception or suggestion of the seething forces or manifestations of the universe’s ultimate being. Naturally there isn’t any such thing in daily life—any more than there are space-ships or ghouls or vampires or time-machines in real life—but anybody must be a damned fool if he can’t see what the descriptive phrase is driving at. The trouble with Wright is that he didn’t stop to give the matter a moment’s real thought. He fancied that the phrase sounded like some of the meaningless grandiloquence of certain extravagant writers, & shot off his mouth before actually analysing it. That’s all too common among the cheap editors who constantly handle thin, unimaginative “action” stuff, & seldom encounter anything with larger implications & overtones.

DESCRIPTION: In a letter to his young friend and protégé Duane W. Rimel, Lovecraft criticizes Farnsworth Wright, the longtime editor of Weird Tales, and his editorial policy, which, he claims, discriminated against atmospheric and original weird fiction.

CITATION: Lovecraft, H. P. “To Duane W. Rimel.” 16 Mar. 1934. Letters to F. Lee Baldwin, Duane W. Rimel, and Nils Frome. Edited by David E. Schultz and S. T. Joshi, Hippocampus Press, 2016, pp. 148-55.

A Touch of Grippe

Commiserations on the cold weather in Averoigne—a cold which I see has extended as far south as Los Angeles. Our Eastern winter has so far been very warm—temperatures of 60° & over extending well into January. However, I’ve been feeling rather on the bum—an early exposure to cold having started my old-time winter foot-swelling, & a combination of indigestion & general weakness (perhaps a touch of grippe) being superadded to that.

DESCRIPTION: In his last letter to Clark Ashton Smith, a writer, poet, and fellow contributor to Weird Tales, Lovecraft refers, in passing, to the illness that would take his life a month later.

CITATION: Lovecraft, H. P. “To Clark Ashton Smith.” 5 Feb. 1937. Dawnward Spire, Lonely Hill: The Letters of H. P. Lovecraft and Clark Ashton Smith. Edited by David E. Schultz and S. T. Joshi, Hippocampus Press, 2017, pp. 657-66.

The Pseudo-Science of Astrology

To the Editor of the Evening News:

It is an unfortunate fact that every man who seeks to disseminate knowledge must contend not only against ignorance itself, but against false instruction as well. No sooner do we deem ourselves free from a particularly gross superstition, than we are confronted by some enemy to learning who would set aside all the intellectual progress of years, and plunge us back into the darkness of mediaeval disbelief.

As a lover of Astronomy, and a writer on that subject, I was the other day very much pained and shocked to see in the Evening News an article on the pseudo-science of Astrology, which has ever been the bane of the seeker after truth. While I entertain no doubt as to the sincerity of the author, a Mr. Hartmann, [it is impossible] for me to comprehend how any person of judgment and education can now give credence to the doctrines of a false and ridiculous system completely exploded over 200 years ago. In this age of enlightenment it ought not be necessary to shew the utter absurdity of the idea that our daily affairs can be governed by the mere apparent motions of infinitely distant bodies whose seeming arrangements and configurations, on which the calculations of judicial astrology are based, arise only from perspective as seen from our particular place in the universe. It seems very provoking that astronomers and other men of sense should be obliged to waste their time and energy in proving Astrology to be false, when there exists not the slightest reason to believe any part of it true; yet the perverse sophistry of certain misguided individuals still raises up such a body of specious evidence in favour of it, that we must needs attack again what we had thought finally conquered. The fallacies of Astrology are like the many heads of the Lernean Hydra; chop off one, and two grow in its place.

DESCRIPTION: In his essay “Science versus Charlatanry,” which was engendered by the appearance of J. F. Hartmann’s article “Astrology and the European War” in the Providence Evening News, Lovecraft dismisses astrology as an ignorant and ridiculous superstition.

CITATION: Lovecraft, H. P. “Science versus Charlatanry.” Collected Essays. Edited by S. T. Joshi, vol. 3, Hippocampus Press, 2005, pp. 260-1.

We Cast Off All Allegiance to Modern Things

And now we cast off all allegiance to modern things; to change, and the rule of steel and steam, and the crumbling of ancient visions and simple impulses. The tar and concrete roads, and the vulgar world that bred them, have ended; and we wind rapt and wondering over elder and familiar ribbons of rutted whiteness which curl past alluring valleys and traverse old wooden bridges in the lee of green slopes. The nearness and intimacy of the little domed hills have become almost breath-taking. Their steepness and abruptness hold nothing in common with the humdrum, standardised world we know, and we cannot help feeling that their outlines have some strange and almost-forgotten meaning, like vast hieroglyphs left by a rumoured titan race whose glories live only in rare, deep dreams. We climb and plunge fantastically as we thread this hypnotic landscape. Time has lost itself in the labyrinths behind, and around us stretch only the flowering waves of faery. Tawdriness is not there, but instead, the recaptured beauty of vanished centuries—the hoary groves, the untainted pastures hedged with gay blossoms and the small brown farmsteads nestling amidst huge trees beneath vertical precipices of fragrant brier and meadow-grass. Even the sunlight assumes a supernal glamour, as if some special atmosphere or exaltation mantled the whole region. There is nothing like it save in the magic vistas that sometimes form the backgrounds of Italian primitives. Sodoma and Leonardo saw such expanses, but only in the distance, and through the vaultings of Renaissance arcades. We rove at will through the midst of the picture; and find in its necromancy a thing we have known or inherited, and for which we have always been vainly searching.

DESCRIPTION: In his essay “Vermont—A First Impression,” Lovecraft describes, in rapturous terms, his travels through southern Vermont in the summer of 1927.

CITATION: Lovecraft, H. P. “Vermont—A First Impression.” Collected Essays. Edited by S. T. Joshi, vol. 4, Hippocampus Press, 2005, pp. 13-5.

A Grand Tour in the Ancient Manner

Had I a year to idle thro’,
With cash to waste and no restriction,
I’d plan a programme to outdo
The wildest feats of travel fiction.

On steamship guides I’d slake my thirst,
And railway maps would make me wiser—
America consider’d first
To please the local advertiser.

O’er England and the Continent
I’d chart a course to shame the sages,
In each cathedral town intent
To catch the colour of the ages.

Paris and Rome I would not miss;
Without the Rhine I’d be no planner,
For one must make a jaunt like this
A Grand Tour in the ancient manner!

But Europe is a trifle trite,
So I would spare no pains in learning
How best to scan in casual flight
The East, where sheiks and sands are burning.

I’d look up ferries on the Nile,
And ’bus fares for the trip to Mecca;
Have chemists test in proper style
The drinking-fountain of Rebecca.

The route of ev’ry Tigris barge
I’d note, and find how much they’d ask us;
What good hotels in Bagdad charge,
And yellow taxis in Damascus.

And I would surely have on hand
The folders of that great excursion,
The Golden Road to Samarcand,
Thro’ Bahai bow’rs and gardens Persian.

Beyond, the Pullman rates I’d get
For Kiao-chan and Yokohama,
Arranging passage thro’ Thibet
To dally with the Dalai Lama.

In tropic isles I’d plan to stay
Till South Sea melodies would bore me,
And for the North Pole book a day,
Where only Peary went before me.

Thus might I scheme—till in the end
The year would slip away unheeded,
My money safe with me to spend,
And the wild outing scarcely needed!

DESCRIPTION: In his poem “A Year Off,” Lovecraft celebrates the power of imagination by envisioning a trip around the world so grand that the planning involved is more satisfying than the trip itself.

CITATION: Lovecraft, H. P. “A Year Off.” The Ancient Track: The Complete Poetical Works of H. P. Lovecraft. Edited by S. T. Joshi, Hippocampus Press, 2013, pp. 178-9.

The Wild Cubists of a Later Age

The skill’d Apelles, by his Prince decreed
To paint with living line the panting steed,
Employ’d in vain each trick and study’d grace,
The likeness of the charger’s foam to trace.
At length, in pique, his dripping brush he flung
Against the canvas horse before him hung—
When lo! by chance there spatter’d o’er each part
The painted lather that defy’d his art!
Thus the wild cubists of a later age
With freakish toil their fancies seek to cage,
Tho’ their poor daubings all would nobler be
Should they splash paint as aimlessly as he!

DESCRIPTION: In his poem “Futurist Art,” Lovecraft lampoons Cubism, which he derides as less artistic than the efforts of Apelles of Kos, the Greek painter who, according to legend, actually improved his picture of a “panting steed” by splashing paint on it.

CITATION: Lovecraft, H. P. “Futurist Art.” The Ancient Track: The Complete Poetical Works of H. P. Lovecraft. Edited by S. T. Joshi, Hippocampus Press, 2013, p. 231.

Next Came “Dagon”

I am glad your friend likes “Dagon”—which was written in 1917, & is the second story I wrote that year, after a nine years’ silence. In 1908, when I was 18, I was disgusted by my lack of technical experience; & burned all my stories (of which the number was infinite) but two; resolving (amusing thought!) to turn to verse in the future. Then, years later, I published these two yarns in an amateur paper; where they were so well received that I began to consider resumption. Finally an amateur editor & critic named W. Paul Cook (Loveman can tell you about him) egged me on to the point of actual production, & “The Tomb”—with all its stiffness—was the result. Next came “Dagon”—& it chagrins me to admit that I’ve hardly been able to equal it since. My favourite three tales are “Dagon”, “Randolph Carter”, & “The Cats of Ulthar.” I only wish the hyperbole of your friend—touching on Poe & Bierce—were true; but realistic observation hath given me abounding humility. If ever the things reach Sterling’s eye, let me pray for more leniency than they deserve!

DESCRIPTION: In a letter to Clark Ashton Smith, a writer and poet who would, in time, become one of his closest friends, Lovecraft discusses some of his earliest short stories and the circumstances that compelled him to resume writing fiction.

CITATION: Lovecraft, H. P. “To Clark Ashton Smith.” 11 Jan. 1923. Dawnward Spire, Lonely Hill: The Letters of H. P. Lovecraft and Clark Ashton Smith. Edited by David E. Schultz and S. T. Joshi, Hippocampus Press, 2017, pp. 43-5.