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.

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.

All Very Nice in a Lowly Way

I am glad you found my stories worth reading—especially “Polaris”, which was written in 1918 before I ever read a word of Dunsany’s. That tale is a favourite with Galpin & Long, though it is so connected with certain facts of science—astronomical, geological, & physiographical—that it lacks the advantages of simplicity and clearness. Weird Tales has printed another thing of mine—“The Hound”—& the editor has just written me a most flattering letter assuring me that I am a fixture with his magazine, & one of his two “star writers”—the other being Seabury Quinn, whose work you may have noticed. All very nice in a lowly way—if W.T. lasts.

DESCRIPTION: In a letter to Clark Ashton Smith, a writer and poet who would, in time, become one of his closest friends, Lovecraft claims that Edwin Baird, the editor of Weird Tales, considered him to be one of his two “star writers,” the other favored writer being Seabury Quinn.

CITATION: Lovecraft, H. P. “To Clark Ashton Smith.” 25 Jan. 1924. 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. 65-8.

Making Concessions in Writing

As you may see, I disagree totally & violently with your belief in making concessions in writing. One concession leads to another—& he who takes the easiest way never comes back. They all say they mean to come back some day—but they never do. Belknap is gone. If Sultan Malik ever pulls out of charlatanry it will be purely the individual & non-representative triumph of a singularly keen objective intellect. Abe Merritt—who could have been a Machen or Blackwood or Dunsany or de la Mare or M. R. James (they never gave in & truckled to the Golden Calf! . . . . why should one if he can get food & decent clothing & warmth & shelter in any less ignominious way?) if he had but chosen—is so badly sunk that he’s lost the critical faculty to realise it. And so on—& so on. The road does not lie through any magazines . . . . that is, the road for a fantastic writer. The “slicks” are just as tawdry & insincere as the “pulps”—with merely a different kind of tawdriness & insincerity—& the reputable magazines (Harpers, Scribners, Story &c.) virtually never handle fantasy. The road to print for the serious fantaisiste is through book-publication alone—save for those incidental magazine placements which lie along the way. And if one can’t make the book grade in the end, he is better off with his work largely unpublished—able to look himself in the face & know that he has never cringed nor truckled nor sold his intellectual & aesthetic integrity. He may go down, but he’ll go down like a free & unbroken gentleman with sword untarnished & colours defiantly flying. Britons never shall be slaves! Actually, all technical training for the popular magazines is in precisely the wrong direction so far as aesthetic expression is concerned. The better magazine hack one is, the less chance one has of ever doing anything worth doing. Every magazine trick & mannerism must be rigidly unlearned & banished even from one’s subconsciousness before one can write seriously for educated mental adults. That’s why Merritt is lost—he learned the trained-dog tricks too well, & now he can’t think & feel fictionally except in terms of the meaningless & artificial clichés of 2¢-a-word romance. Machen & Dunsany & James would not learn the tricks—& they have a record of genuine creative achievement beside which a whole library-full of cheap “Ships of Ishtar” & “Creep, Shadows” remains essentially negligible. It is much better never to have anything published than to cringe to cheap tradesmen—yet in practice the determined anti-concessionist often lands a story. True, he doesn’t land as many as the truckler lands—but that was never his object. He wrote what he wrote because he wanted to write it—& the feat of mood-crystallisation itself was its own reward. If he had merely written what some grasping editorial clown wanted, where would his satisfaction have been? When it comes to a question of industrial production to suit a market demand, it’s rather more dignified to let the commodity be something staple & useful—wheat, oranges, coal, furniture, & so on—than to let one’s production-programme mock & parody the basic human impulse of aesthetic creation.

DESCRIPTION: In a letter to fellow writer C. L. Moore, Lovecraft argues that writers should, for the sake of their artistic and intellectual integrity, remain true to their own aesthetic vision instead of making concessions to the demands of editors and the public they represent.

CITATION: Lovecraft, H. P. “To C. L. Moore.” 7 Feb. 1937. Letters to C. L. Moore and Others. Edited by David E. Schultz and S. T. Joshi, Hippocampus Press, 2017, pp. 205-23.

The Fruits, Not the Mechanism

I’m all for personal merit, & used to revere aristocracy because it developed personal merit. Just as you revere your kindly plutocrats, so did I revere my kindly & honourable agrarian squires. But seven depression years in a hotbed of blind reactionaries has taught me things! . . . What some of these birds call argument & logick!! Now I’m beginning to wake up & see that what I used to respect was not really aristocracy, but a set of personal qualities which aristocracy then developed better than any other system . . . a set of qualities, however, whose merit lay only in a psychology of non-calculative, non-competitive disinterestedness, truthfulness, courage, & generosity fostered by good education, minimum economic stress, & assumed position, & JUST AS ACHIEVABLE THROUGH SOCIALISM AS THROUGH ARISTOCRACY. It was the fruits, not the mechanism, which were worthy of respect—& today the decadent mechanism functions in vacuo, pavoninely proud of its mere skeletal essence, & no longer producing the fruits which once justify’d its existence. Hell! I’m done with it & its pretences.

DESCRIPTION: In a letter to fellow writer C. L. Moore, Lovecraft explains why he favors socialism over aristocracy, a system he once “revered” for its ability to develop personal merit.

CITATION: Lovecraft, H. P. “To C. L. Moore.” 20 Oct. 1936. Letters to C. L. Moore and Others. Edited by David E. Schultz and S. T. Joshi, Hippocampus Press, 2017, pp. 175-85.

A World of Opiate Phantasy and Horror

I trust you will pardon the liberty taken by an absolute stranger in writing you, for I cannot refrain from expressing the appreciation aroused in me by your drawings and poetry, as shown me by my friend, Mr. Samuel Loveman, whom I am now visiting in Cleveland. Your book, containing matter only chronologically classifiable as juvenilia, impresses me as a work of the most distinguished genius; and makes me anxious to see the new volume which I understand is in course of preparation.

Of the drawings and water-colours I lack a vocabulary adequate to express my enthusiastic admiration. What a world of opiate phantasy and horror is here unveiled, and what an unique power and perspective must lie behind it! I speak with especial sincerity and enthusiasm, because my own especial tastes centre almost wholly around the grotesque and the arabesque. I have tried to write short stories and sketches affording glimpses into the unknown abysses of terror which leer beyond the boundaries of the known, but have never succeeded in evoking even a fraction of the stark hideousness conveyed by any one of your ghoulishly potent designs.

DESCRIPTION: In a letter to Clark Ashton Smith, a writer and poet who would, in time, become one of his closest friends, Lovecraft expresses his admiration for Smith’s weird poetry, which he enthusiastically describes as a “work of the most distinguished genius.”

CITATION: Lovecraft, H. P. “To Clark Ashton Smith.” 12 Aug. 1922. 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, p. 35.