REVIEW: The Lovecraft Annual 2020, which was published in late summer 2020 from Hippocampus Press.
It is summer 1935. Lovecraft and Barlow are sitting on a lake-shore porch in balmy Florida. They are listening carefully to Barlow Sr., one Colonel Everett D. Barlow, and are taking rapid notes on his talk. The beginning of a World War is only four years away, and Col. Barlow is observing that the nation’s defences have been left sorely lacking. The new Lovecraft Annual opens with the unusual item that resulted from this talk, and gives us the supporting materials that allow the modern reader to eavesdrop on the long-ago flow of talk. We first read the notes taken by Barlow and Lovecraft, on the pressing military topic of “National Defence”, and then the more polished version, and finally the finished published article.
By 1935 the period in which Lovecraft had ‘come of age’, albeit rather later than a normal lad might, was long gone. He had lived on, past the tumult of 1919 and into the period of relative political quiescence marked by a strong ‘anti-red’ public mood. This had run from the end of the First World War in 1919 until the start of the Great Depression in 1929. But by summer 1935 the relative political quiescence of the 1920s had evaporated, and Col. Barlow evidently wished to chivvy along the nation to put its defences in order against both communism and fascism. Judging by the texts presented in the Annual, he appears to have made his case concisely and eloquently. We are able to read the first notes from the ‘spoken’ version of his article, then the fleshing out of these by his youngest son, and then Lovecraft’s polished ghost-written article as it appeared in print in December 1935 (the ‘Winter 1935’ issue of The Californian). What changes between the versions? Not a great deal. The word “pacifists” becomes the more qualified and snarky “people called pacifists”. This seems a prescient snark, given what we now know about communist ‘front organisations’ and their quiet connections with noisy fellow-travellers in the mass media. “People called pacifists” and who hide behind the ‘peace’ label but who may be anything but, is the implication of the phrase. The article’s final version was also slightly pepped up by the insertion of a vivid mental picture of a U.S. battleship entering a harbour and thus usefully deterring some “excitable” dictator who had really meant what he blustered. This addition (page 12) feels like it might have been from Lovecraft rather than Barlow. In the article we also glimpse something of what appears to be Barlow Sr.’s evangelical Christian stance, a stance which may help explain some of the friction felt by his weird-loving and secretly-gay son. At the back of all this we probably also glimpse a part of why Lovecraft was made so welcome in the Barlow household. I suggest he may have been thought of as a steadying influence, who might help to prevent the brilliant and flighty young Barlow from being seduced into communism — as so many of Lovecraft’s circle had been by 1935.
Curiously, I recently found that — some years later — Barlow noted the “National Defence” article as being a “joint parody”. What are we to make of that? Simply a bad memory, jotted on the cover of an old text that he did not have the inclination to read over again? Did he confuse it, when packing up, with “Battle that Ended the Century”? The final text given in the Lovecraft Annual seems straightforward enough to me, as it presumably was to the editor of The Californian and his readers. Judging by a partial table-of-contents available online, the same issue of The Californian appears to contain several other military articles that sit well alongside that of Barlow Senior.
The run of essays in the Lovecraft Annual begins with Steven J. Mariconda’s long-awaited take on “The Colour Out of Space”. This did not make it to his excellent book of collected essays, but was known about and now it finds a place here under the title “Atmosphere and the Qualitative Analysis of “The Colour out of Space””. The focus is on Lovecraft’s conception of “atmosphere” in weird fiction. The discussion is short but illuminating, though initially made more difficult for Mariconda because Lovecraft himself cannot really offer a cogent definition of his key approach to his tales. Atmosphere in Lovecraftian weird fiction, Mariconda then suggests…
calls forth a mood” and is “a kind of synaesthesia [i.e. one sense triggers another sense] that takes effect as a result of a work’s literary content … an oblique effect that replicates the experience of a situation but is created with the essentially musical quality of words, that is to say, rhythm, assonance, alliteration, and repetition.
That seems a useful definition. I would add that it is also a kind of foreshadowing and often a foreboding, one that is beguiling yet does not reveal itself fully and openly. It can thus also work by ‘tantalizing’ — of which technique Tolkien is a master — via the presentation of an evocative detail which then entices the reader to interweave some slight and passing speculation of their own.
As Mariconda points out, “atmosphere” obviously seems to have natural links with changing weather, light in a landscape, fogs and mists, the hours of the night, and all the other time-served gothic stage-effects. Mariconda then takes Lovecraft’s “Colour” as being something of a metaphor for “atmosphere”. Atmosphere incarnate and grown monstrous, if you like. He also makes the interesting point that the alien colour cannot likely exist on its own. Because somewhere out there one would expect there to be a cosmic spectrum of alien colour, of which the colour is but one part. Although I would add that perhaps the very idea of our ordered sequential spectrum is unknown in such spaces, and would itself be an alien concept. Mariconda concludes with a useful survey of common words used within the story — nothing, various forms of between, against, behind, and air words such as vapour.
Richard Bleiler’s essay “H.P. Lovecraft’s First Appearance in Print” then usefully examines the background to Lovecraft’s first published text, a letter to the Amsterdam Evening Recorder newspaper, in upstate New York. Bleiler ably explains the background to this letter — a private man had handsomely backed a national weather-forecasting prize-contest. This contest attracted the attention of the 14 year-old Lovecraft who, to establish his bona fides with the newspaper editor, proudly itemised some of his weather station equipment including “psychometrical apparatus”. Lovecraft’s home station had been used for local forecasting from around April 1904. Bleiler wonders how Lovecraft came to write to the Amsterdam Evening Recorder, whose office was about 100 miles north of New York City and around 150 miles NW of Providence, and explores various ideas.
Bleiler several times speculates on Lovecraft’s ability to access the refined library of the Providence Athenaeum as a young lad, and in doing so he curiously overlooks the open access Lovecraft actually had to the city’s nationally-excellent Public Library and even to its ‘stacks’ storerooms. But a rather more vital point is also overlooked. The possible satiric nature of Lovecraft’s newspaper letter is assumed, and this notion hinges on the idea that “psychometrical” carried the later meaning that connects it with spiritualism and related pseudo-scientific charlatanry. Yet just a little more research would have revealed that ‘psychometrical’ measurements were a valid aspect of scientific meteorology, being used with bulb thermometers…
for determining the elastic force of aqueous vapour for relative humidity of the atmosphere.
Not realising this, Bleiler then misses the potentially important connection with colour, and thus with Lovecraft’s famous story “The Colour out of Space”. The introductory textbook Optical Thin Films and Coatings usefully explains that the field of Colorimetry is…
subdivided in three parts: psychophysical colorimetry, psychometrical colorimetry and instrumental color measurement. [early discoveries in the field included] Brereton (1631—1679) [who] observed the colors of the thin films which the action of the weather produces upon glass (weathering phenomenon)…
Popular Science magazine for August 1929 instructs boys, in plain English, on the making and using of a calibrated 50-field colour bar for use in measuring humidity. This hints that in earlier decades it would also have been normal for a boy’s home weather station to include a psychometrical colour bar.
What a missed opportunity, then, in which Bleiler might have gone on to explore what appears to be good evidence for Lovecraft’s early interest in the subtlest changes and hues of colour in special filter papers or in globules of atmospheric moisture on glass — and their potential presaging of the invisible onset of implacably destructive weather-forces.
Nor does Bleiler connect the ownership of “six maximum and medium thermometers by Castella” with the “6 circular windows with shutters, in case of severe storm” in the young Lovecraft’s “Climatological Station”. It seems the young Lovecraft had a six-sided box for his thermometers, most likely adjustable and with numbers on it to identify each one. Presumably a formula then corrected for slight imprecision among the six (due to wind, shade, sunlight etc) and gave a precisely averaged and more reliable temperature. The form of the box is a small point, but it helps to indicate how seriously the young Lovecraft took the science. It may also faintly amuse modern RPG six-sided dice fans, to know that the young Lovecraft had a large six-sided box, presumably capable of spinning and from which he read off numbers.
The next essay is Dylan Henderson on “The Subversive Nature of H.P. Lovecraft’s Occult Detective”. Seven pages of fifteen are taken up in an initial recounting the sub-genre’s history, up to and including August Derleth’s Solar Pons tales. While this history may be familiar to some, it does serve to show the sub-genre was becoming rather formulaic by the writing of “The Horror in Red Hook” in August 1925. Henderson then usefully outlines the several ways in which Lovecraft’s Detective Malone departs from the formula: Malone works alone without the usual sidekick or love-interest; he can discover little; he finds he is powerless in the face of a vast occult conspiracy; he is shattered by what little he does discover. As such, “Red Hook” was obviously a subversion of sub-genre expectations, but at no point in Henderson’s essay was I convinced that it was ever meant to be a parody of it. I suggest that Lovecraft had not read enough in the sub-genre at that point to risk parody — for instance at that point he had not yet even encountered Blackwood’s ‘John Silence’ occult detective tales, or the other key stories he would encounter while researching his long survey essay Supernatural Literature. Nor had he read Chambers’ similar Slayer of Souls (1920).
Also, I would add that Red Hook has a then-contemporary setting, which also makes it an unlikely vehicle for parody. Lovecraft the humorist could have spun out a hilarious cane-twirling cape-swishing parody of a historical gothic detective, had he wished. No, my feeling is that Lovecraft was writing commercially for a specific pulp audience after studying a specific magazine in the market, and would know that even a covert parody would not get past the editor and sell. But neither could he write to formula, however much he might wish to land in Detective Tales and open a much-needed new market. He might at least innovate a little, and do so much as Henderson outlines. Henderson’s essay thus suffers from not unearthing the precise circumstances of the writing of “Red Hook” — which can now be found on page 331 of Letters to Family, and elsewhere regarding the new Detective Tales. The tale was plotted and written at great speed over a solid ‘clear the decks’ period of about 36 hours, and it then seems likely that this was something of a pulp speed-writing experiment for Lovecraft. How quickly could he turn out a long saleable $50 pulp ‘shocker’ story that addressed his own concerns and his lived local experience, and also the wider politics of the nation (i.e. the relative failure of the Immigration Act of 1924, on which so many hopes had been pinned)? A story that had all that, and yet remained somewhat outside ‘the formula’ that Detective Tales expected? Given the speed of writing and these competing demands, it is perhaps to be expected that the resulting tale is a rather ungainly entertainment and a ‘botched gamble’. But at least it still entertains and provides useful — if rather pungent — glimpses into Lovecraft’s psychological state at the start of August 1925 as his pressure-cooker mind began to boil over on the edge of an odorous and noisy New York City slum. As I have shown elsewhere, “Red Hook” also accurately encapsulates various ethnographic and topographic details that no other writer of the time recorded — making it a useful item for the historical record. Lovecraft’s Norwegians, Syrians and other national groups were not figments of his overheated imagination, as some have claimed.
If anything, though, I would suggest that the tale’s central innovation is that Malone is not the hero. The attentive reader eventually and suddenly realises that Suydam can be understood as having risked all, including passing through death, to foil the cult’s raising of Lilith by toppling her vital occult pedestal back into the watery abyss at the key moment. Suydam can be seen as the real hero of “Red Hook”, and that I feel is the real innovation of Lovecraft’s experiment with the occult detective story.
In the next essay, “Yuletide Horrors”, Cecelia Hopkins-Brewer closely examines “The Festival” and the poem “The Messenger”. I was not convinced of a direct parody of her suggested source, but certainly there are general similarities and apparently both Lovecraft’s work and her hymn have an interesting 6-6-6 beat. One wonders if the canny Weird Tales editor Wright noticed this in “The Messenger” — he published the first three verses which are said to have the 6-6-6 beat. Hopkins-Brewer also interestingly surveys Lovecraft’s activities at various Christmas holidays, though omits 1924, 1926-27, and 1929-32.
Will Murray’s “The Doomed Lovecrafts of Rochester” then offers a clear account of the convoluted strands of madness and death which wove themselves around the benighted Lovecraft family in the later Victorian period, leading ultimately into an equally clear account of the later facts concerning Lovecraft’s mother and her madness. He does not however note the walks and talks Lovecraft had with his mother when she was mad, or Derleth’s involvement in getting the Hess memories of the madness. I believe the quotes given come from Derleth’s interview with Hess, probably conducted in late 1948.
Ken Faig Jr. has “John Osborne Austin’s Seven Club Tales: Did They Inspire Lovecraft?” We know that in 1920 Lovecraft had an idea for what sounds like a similar book, which he described to Kliener as “a hideous novel to be entitled The Club of the Seven Dreamers”. Faig gives us succinct plot summaries from Austin’s Seven Club Tales, and from these I can see some passing similarities to works such as “Cool Air”, “The White Ship”, “Dagon” and “The Strange High House in the Mist”.
Andrew Gipe-Lazarou then surveys “The ‘Extreme Fantasy’ of Delirious New York” as experienced by Lovecraft. This long essay comes from a thesis and suffers from an unfortunate overuse of architect-speak and acronyms (e.g. “the WFM is incompatible with the PCM”), but is stimulating on Lovecraft’s topophilia and has much to say in linking this with perceptions of architectural forms. For instance he makes an interesting point about Lovecraft’s understanding of the “secondary aestheticism” of colonial architecture and its ability to generate a sense of weirdness (Selected Letters II). This phrase indicates the “creative unevenness” that retains traces of the owner and builders, and the “responsiveness to the natural terrain” that might in certain lights and weathers make the structure seem to somehow be living. Massing of buildings in itself may be evocative in a Dunsanian manner, even if the buildings are not (e.g. the rooftops of Marblehead) and it is suggested that this viewing principle was transferred by Lovecraft to certain early views of the lit-up towers of New York City. Also noted is the sudden transition from one psychic zone to another — Gipe-Lazarou quotes from Lovecraft on his own adoption of this TARDIS-like psychogeographic strategy, most likely learned from McNeil in Hell’s Kitchen…
visitors not infrequently commented on the virtual transition from one world to another implied in the simple act of stepping within my door. Outside—Red Hook. Inside—Providence, R.I.!” (Selected Letters II).
But later in the essay Gipe-Lazarou over-reaches when he recalls Lovecraft’s Syrian neighbours and suggests that in “Red Hook” Lovecraft “is implicating the Syrian” in his new-found horror of the city, suggesting a depiction of “the Syrian’s anti-city”. Because the text of the story does not support such claims about the Syrian immigrants of the time, clearly stating that the cryptic and furtive Lilith-worshipping newcomers are…
eloquently repudiated by the great mass of Syrians in and around Atlantic Avenue
“Eloquently” suggests a certain cultivation and discernment, and may even hint that Lovecraft had come to understand — after some initial annoyance at their exotic wailing music coming through his walls — that the large number of Syrians in the city were actually refugee Christians who were fleeing persecution in their homeland.
Nor do two quotes, given by Gipe-Lazarou to support his point, hold up when checked. He writes…
The Syrian, according to Lovecraft, is responsible for the death of old New York … he is an agent of “de-provincialisation” of America and the merger with the modern “world-culture” stream (MWM 453)
No, the Syrian is not held “responsible”. Because when one looks up the given reference in Letters to Maurice W. Moe (‘MWM’) there is no mention at all of Syrians. Lovecraft is talking to Dwyer about the effects of industrialisation on the old-time provincial New England and the consequent intellectual feting of a “decadent” European culture, in a regional attempt by New England to “deprovincialise and merge herself into that stream of [the] world-culture” whose members understand themselves as being a “good European”. Lovecraft is not blaming the Syrian(s) who lodged with him in the Clinton St. boarding house, is not mentioning Syrians, and is talking at length about New England and Europe. Indeed, there is counter-evidence — a Syrian tailor tailored (very amicably) Lovecraft’s fraying clothes, and he was served (very amicably) coffee in at least one Syrian cafe in Red Hook.
The next essay in the Annual is “An Arctic Mystery: The Lovecraftian North Pole” by Edward Guimont. The author tracks down and itemises a wealth of Arctic references in Lovecraft. He finds no influence on the story “Polaris” from Dunsany, “as is often claimed”. He also draws together some interesting threads on small points — for example the Arctic explorer ship Terror was once stationed nearby at Block Island, where Faig has determined Lovecraft had two ancestors as founding settlers. Guimont also amusingly points out that, at Lovecraft’s birth, the possibilities of Ice Age mammoths being extinct in Alaska was by no means certain and their presence there was still being discussed. The essay also has some useful and careful tallying of the historical record with Lovecraft’s letters re: the genesis of At The Mountains of Madness (page 151). Guimont also makes reference to a Lovecraft-as-character, found in Derleth’s unimpressive pulp story “Beyond the Threshold” (1941). Lovecraft is there Josiah Alwyn, explorer of remote regions including the Arctic. I note that, in a curious co-incidence of name and profession, Tolkien also had a far-travelled explorer Alwin Lowdham in his abandoned “Notion Club Papers” (1945).
Cesar Guarde-Paz’s “Textual Sources and Corrigenda Minora to “A Living Heritage: Roman Architecture in Today’s America”” seeks to correct the text of Lovecraft’s “A Living Heritage”, via exemplary delving into the textual history and some close squinting at the famously fourth-dimensional handwriting. Along the way we learn that Lovecraft had not only access to the famous 9th Encyclopaedia Britannica, but also to its multi-volume companion American Revisions and Additions to EB. Good to know, as I would not have known that from consulting my edition of Lovecraft’s Library.
Next is Simone Turco’s “On Hawthorne’s Unwitting “Children”: The Strange Case of H. P. Lovecraft”. Drawing on Burleson’s early work on Hawthorne he makes the interesting point that the boy Lovecraft’s determined interest in the pagan world might be understood as a juvenile purging of the Christian notion of ‘sin’, this then suggesting a certain later alienation from Hawthorn’s preoccupation with the literary idea of ‘unpardonable sin’. As I’ve suggested elsewhere, there might however have been some unconscious displacement from the religious to the biological for Lovecraft — the idea of a tainted heredity, understood within a eugenics framework such as the four-generation family degeneration theory, might have operated in a similarly ‘unpardonable sin’ manner for the adult Lovecraft. Turco’s finely written essay is excellent on the idea of ‘the house’ (pages 184-85) and comes to a firm conclusion.
The Annual concludes its essays with Duncan Norris’s very long “Zeitgeist and Untoten: Lovecraft and the Walking Dead”. This assiduously goes in search of the walking dead in Lovecraft, first distinguishing them from other forms (‘the ghoul’ etc) and then ploughing through story after story. The author finds “The Outsider” to be the first unambiguous use of such and concludes — after also surveying the cultural after-life of his zombies — that Lovecraft created zombies in their modern form. The master’s standing as “the font of the modern zombie is unchallengeable”.
Incidentally, Norris notices the source of “The Outsider” epigraph in Keats and calls it “a curious choice” — as it references two lovers illicitly escaping from a crowded castle. I would suggest that, as we know that the tale was read to potential marriage partner Myrta Alice Little, this may be one of the small changes she is known to have offered after the face-to-face reading. Elsewhere in the essay there is also the fascinating suggestion that the hit movie The Mummy (December 1932) appears to have borrowed a key plot element from Lovecraft’s “Under the Pyramids”. Was Hollywood borrowing from Lovecraft as early as 1932? Could be. Did Lovecraft notice? So far as I am aware he saw it with the Long family, but his opinion of it went unrecorded.
Finally the reader is then treated to some short but informative book reviews, mostly of recent books of Lovecraft’s letters (Wandrei, Talman, and the expanded Galpin). But among these there is also a review of a translated book. The Flock of Ba-Hui is by a pseudonymous writer of samizdat Lovecraftian tales in China, and S.T. Joshi treats these tales to a glowing and positive review.