Notes on the Selected Letters – part one:
I’ve decided to re-read Lovecraft’s Selected Letters over the summer. Here are my ‘Note on Selected Letters‘ for Volume 1, which I was lucky enough to get in a cheap ex-library copy some years ago. Thanks to my Patreon patrons who made that purchase possible. One of the nice things about such a hardback, compared to the paperback volumes of letters, is that the binding is such that they can lay flat when you open them and lay them on a table or book-stand.
Note that I skimmed and sometimes skipped a few letters from people I already have in their dedicated volumes, such as Moe and Kleiner.
* The planet Venus is noted, along with Develan’s Comet. Page 5.
* Lovecraft is hailed by key members of the audience as a “born public speaker”, after laying aside his script and giving his talk impromptu at the Hub Club. Page 124.
* He saw the movie David Garrick. He mentions the name of the leading man, so we know this was the 1916 version, seen below. Page 127.
* His amateur colleague Jackson kept scrap books of the best of amateur publications, in which Lovecraft found he featured heavily when he was shown them in Boston. I’m not sure if these scrap-books have survived. Page 126.
* In 1921 Lovecraft anticipates “the next war”. Page 160.
* “Don’t complain of the youth’s high-powered motor-car unless you can give him an horse and armour and send him to conquer the domains of the neighbouring kings!” Page 209.
* With his youthful telescope he… “gazed upon the moon’s frightful abysses where no diffusing air softens the nighted blackness of distorted shadows.” and “It has always been my intention to write a set of tales involving other planets”. The latter said in 1923. Page 214.
* He reveals why he ceased publishing his astronomy articles in the local newspaper… “The paper was sold to the Democrats”. Page 214.
* There is a magnificent extended description of a Portsmouth garden, which is almost a prose-poem in itself…
When it is twilight in the worlds, there are heard in that garden the invisible steps of MĀNA-YOOD-SUSHĀI, who is weary of Sardathrion’s gleaming walls and onyx lions, and would gaze softly and gently on that loveliness he hath created in his dreams.
MĀNA-YOOD-SUSHĀI is Dunsany’s ‘Dreamer of All Things’ god. Page 245-46. Lovecraft is writing fan-fiction, in 1923.
* In a 1923 exploration of the front part of Nentaconhant Hill [Neutaconkanut] he notes that at the summit an… “observatory in the Gothick manner, somewhat in disrepair, crowns this majestick acclivity”. Although the lack of any further description of his climbing this tower suggests there may have been no public access. The Rhode Island Historical Preservation 1976 survey listing for Johnson makes no mention of this tower, but this 1926 map shows the “King Observatory” and its location on the hill…
This was Abby A. King’s ‘The King Observatory’, a 60-foot tower “topped by an observation cupola”, though if for night-time astronomy rather than daytime sight-seeing is now uncertain. Perhaps the intent was to allow both. But Rhode Island Historical Notes for 1977 has a footnote, to an article on an early Boy Scouts trip to the hill, that reveals the above map was out of date. Since the tower, it states… “was burned to rubble by vandals in 1925”. This probably suggests that local youths had a clandestine way into the tower, and also suggests a heavy timber frame inside stone facing. Given this the setting thus presumably inspired ‘the tower scene’ in the excellent recent biographical graphic-novel Une nuit avec Lovecraft, although the tower is there imagined as having survived into the 1930s.
Only much later in his life did he discover the little-visited faun-haunted meads and twilit glades at the back of the same hill, then just outside the city boundaries…
* In early 1924 Lovecraft recalls of his earlier self..
In those middle years [after leaving High School I was] practically out of the world until three years ago [i.e. 1921]” … “the poor devil was such a nervous wreck that he hated to speak to any human being, or even to see or be seen by one; and every trip to town was an ordeal.
By “trip to town” he must mean for daytime or evening shopping and suchlike in the central market and business district, or for the Public Library / bookstores, rather than any hypothetical night-walks (he appears to have been largely nocturnal during this period).
* In early 1924 his planned “big novel” Azathoth will be “exotic and highbrow” and “wholly unsuited” to Weird Tales. While his lesser novel for the Weird Tales masses will be a “hideous thing … The House of the Worm“. Neither were written, of course. Page 295.
* There is a useful plain explanation, to a puzzled Frank Belknap Long, of what the submarine city in his “The Temple” is meant to be…
My submarine city is a work of man – a templed and glittering metropolis that once reared its copper domes and colonnades of chrysolite to glowing Atlantean suns. Fair Nordick bearded men dwelt in my city, and spoke a polish’d tongue akin to Greek; and the flame that the Graf von Altberg-Ehrenstein beheld was a witch-fire lit by spirits many millennia old.
There are only oblique hints of this in the tale…
1). The reader in the year 1921 is presumably expected to parse several mid-Atlantic locations. The submarine is preying on the “Liverpool-New York” civilian shipping lanes at “N. Latitude 45° 16′, W. Longitude 28° 34′”, something most schoolboys would then be familiar with via their school Atlas, which showed the shipping lanes. Later the submarine drifts well “south” of these shipping lanes, so… she is somewhere north of the Azores and thus outside the well-trafficked routes.
2). As for the underwater city, it is clearly prior to even the earliest Greek art… “impression of terrible antiquity, as though it were the remotest rather than the immediate ancestor of Greek art”. The reader, informed elsewhere by the historical-ethnographic categories known to the early 1920s, must thus deduce that due to its stated age the city was built by a primal unknown ‘Nordic’ culture which only later informed the known historical ‘Mediterranean’ type culture. There was in the 1910s a simplistic ‘Nordic vs. Mediterranean’ argument relating to the wider questions of Indo-European cultural origins and diffusion. Lovecraft is probably assuming that everyone is familiar with these divisions.
3). As for the “witch-light”, the story does offer a… “rhythmic, melodic sound as of some wild yet beautiful chant or choral hymn … vividly aglow with a flickering radiance, as from a mighty altar-flame far within”. Which seems clear enough. But by “witch-light” Lovecraft presumably means ‘a large but somewhat faint flickering radiance’, rather than ‘a light lit by witches’.
4). But that the flickering light (implied flame) has been lit by “spirits” is only meant to be deduced from the general ghostly underwater setting + the immense age of the place. Perhaps also by the carvings on the temple doors “exquisite carvings like the figures of Bacchanals in relief”, which indicates the spirited scene that awaits beyond. I can find no details on ancient temple Bacchanals which indicate that some sort of special large flickering flame was present at the interior aspect of these (the processions are better attested) but perhaps Lovecraft knew differently and expected others to know it too.