22 December 2014
By Paul Roland
“No aspiring author should content himself with a mere acquisition of technical rules… All attempts at gaining literary polish must begin with judicious reading…a story of Poe’s will impress upon the mind a more vivid notion of powerful and correct description and narration than will ten dry chapters of a bulky textbook.” Lovecraft on ‘Literary Composition’ (January 1920).
Lovecraft took his pleasures seriously, none more so that his love of literature. He derived a particular delight in sharing his enthusiasm and literary discoveries with friends and correspondents.
In a letter to Clark Ashton Smith dated March 26, 1931 he singled out Poe for his atmospheric intensity, Lord Dunsany for his “cosmic range” and abundant invention, Algernon Blackwood for generating a persuasive “unrealism” and Arthur Machen whom he described as a “Titan.” In a letter to correspondent Frank Belknap Long, he called Machen ”—perhaps the greatest living author—and I must read everything of his...there is in Machen an ecstasy of fear that all other living men are too obtuse or timid to capture, and that even Poe failed to envisage in all its starkest abnormality.”
Machen’s ‘The Novel of the White Powder’ sees a young law student addicted to a drug that initially offers him respite from his troubles, but which ultimately destroys him. After a sticky black liquid seeps through the floor into the room below a doctor is summoned and breaks down the door to discover, “a dark and putrid mass, seething with corruption and hideous rottenness, neither liquid nor solid, but melting and changing”.
One cannot read it without being reminded of Lovecraft’s own ‘The Thing on the Doorstep’ and ‘Cool Air’ and there are resonances too of the death of Wilbur Whateley in ‘The Dunwich Horror’ and the livid red stain on the ceiling in ‘The Picture in the House’ in Machen’s story.
And yet Lovecraft ranked Machen below Blackwood. “I am dogmatic enough to call ‘The Willows’ the finest weird story I have ever read, and I find in the ‘Incredible Adventures’ and ‘John Silence’ material a serious and sympathetic understanding of the human illusion-weaving process which makes Blackwood rate far higher as a creative artist than many another craftsman of mountainously superior word-mastery and general technical ability...” (Letter to Vincent Starrett, 6 December 1927).
Ten years later he had not altered his opinion. “It is safe to say that Blackwood is the greatest living weirdist despite unevenness and a poor prose style.” (Letter to Willis Conover, 10 January 1937)
‘The Willows’ benefits from its isolated setting, a wilderness of islands, sand-banks and swampland off the Hungarian shore where two travellers are assailed by unsettling sensations, hallucinations and impressions. It appears that they had unwittingly trespassed on an unholy site and the spirit of the place demands human sacrifice.
Lovecraft also had his reservations regarding Ambrose Bierce who “seldom realises the atmospheric possibilities of his themes as vividly as Poe” and whose work was undermined by “a certain touch of naïveté, prosaic angularity, or early-American provincialism.” Nevertheless, he opined, “the genuineness and artistry of his dark intimations are always unmistakable, so that his greatness is in no danger of eclipse.” (‘Supernatural Horror in Literature’).
Bierce is best known for ‘An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge’ in which a Confederate sympathiser escapes execution only to discover that it was a delusion experienced in the throes of death. But Lovecraft disliked such twists and so preferred Bierce’s more conventional ghost stories, ‘The Suitable Surroundings’ and ‘The Death of Halpin Frayser’.
Lovecraft regarded the British poet and short story writer Walter De la Mare as “a forceful craftsman to whom an unseen mystic world is ever a vital and close reality…whose haunting verse and exquisite prose alike bear consistent traces of a strange vision reaching deeply into veiled spheres of beauty and terrible and forbidden dimensions of being.” He observed that De La Mare “can be exceedingly powerful when he chooses, and I only wish he’d choose oftener.” In a letter to Frank Belknap Long dated 11 June 1926 he urged his friend to seek out ‘The Return’, a collection of short stories that included ‘The Tree’, ‘Out of the Depths’ and ‘Seaton’s Aunt’ which Lovecraft admired for “its noxious background of malignant vampirism.” Although it would be more accurate to say that the supernatural element in the latter is secondary to the main theme, the guilt that haunts the narrator for having failed to save his friend from the predatory spinster.
Lord Dunsany was extoled for the “magical prose” of his ‘Dreamer’s Tales’ which Lovecraft found lacking in his later work. “Truly, Dunsany has influenced me more than anyone else except Poe—his rich language, his cosmic point of view, his remote dream-world, and his exquisite sense of the fantastic, all appeal to me more than anything else in modern literature. My first encounter with him—in the autumn of 1919—gave an immense impetus to my writing; perhaps the greatest it has ever had...” (Letter to Clark Ashton Smith, July 30 1923).
In November 1936 he informed Fritz Leiber that one of his personal favourites was M.P. Shiel, “whose ‘House of Sounds’ is a marvellous tour de force comparable to its obvious Poesque prototype ‘The Fall of the House of Usher’. The first half of Shiel’s novel ‘The Purple Cloud’ is also a veritably stupendous piece of work.”
The latter chronicles the extinction of the human race, whose end is witnessed by an explorer who believes he is the lone survivor. The leisurely pace and intellectual musings on life and death appealed to Lovecraft as did the use of unseen presences which vie for the soul of the man who discovers that he is not alone after all.
In ‘House of Sounds’ the narrator is summoned by a friend to an isolated house on the Norwegian coast where the inhabitants must communicate in writing because of the pounding waves which batter the walls night and day. The family are cursed and the countdown to their doom is being measured by a machine in the vault beneath their feet.
To Frank Belknap Long he wrote of the ‘House of Sounds’, “This last is the masterpiece! How can I describe its poison-grey ‘insidious madness’? If I say it is very like ‘The Fall of the House of Usher’…I shall not even have suggested the utterly antique delirium of artic wastes, titan seas, insane brazen towers, centuried malignancy, frenzied waves and cataracts, and above all hideous, insistent, brain-petrifying, Pan-accursed cosmic SOUND…I am left breathless and inarticulate.”
It didn’t matter to him if a writer produced only one significant piece, so long as it had the power to astonish him. In a letter to James F. Morton dated April 4 1935 he confessed he had “lapp’d up Gustav Meyrink’s ‘The Golem’, lent me by little Bobby Barlow. The most magnificent weird thing I’ve come across in aeons!”
Meyrink’s novel recounts the disjointed dreams, delusions and mystical visions experienced by a Prague jeweller whose resurrection of the soulless guardian of the ghetto may be nothing more than his distorted memories of the myth of the Golem.
Lovecraft enjoyed bringing lesser known writers to the attention of his fellow weird tales enthusiasts. In a letter to J. Vernon Shea dated 28 January 1933 he praised Robert W. Chambers, author of ‘The Yellow Sign’, for investing “one of the greatest weird tales ever written” with a tremendous “brooding, gathering atmosphere” adding that another of Chambers’ tales, ‘The Harbour Master’ gave him “quite a wallop.”
Chambers is chiefly remembered for his one supreme masterwork ‘The King in Yellow’, a collection of ten tales which had a profound and lasting influence on Lovecraft. In a letter to Donald Wandrei he described it as “a serious of vaguely connected short tales having as a background a horrible book-abhorred and suppressed-whose perusal brings fright, madness and spectral tragedy.” In his survey of fantastic fiction, ‘Supernatural Horror in Literature’, Lovecraft bemoans the fact that Chambers did not “develop a vein in which he could so easily have become a recognised master.”
‘The King In Yellow’ is both the title of the collection and of the fictional play which is quoted throughout in tantalising epigraphs. The first act is reputed to be deceptively ordinary and designed to entice the unwary before Act two drives them insane. Of the four macabre tales, the most famous is ‘The Yellow Sign’ in which an artist and his female model discuss their dreams which are of a decidedly morbid nature. His involves a vision of a hearse which is carrying her coffin and she dreams of being conscious inside the casket.
Brooklyn born Chambers named his sovereign city of Carcosa after a story by Ambrose Bierce from whom he also took the name of his supernatural entities Hali and Hastur. Both were subsequently allocated roles in the Cthulhu Mythos.
‘No one can deny that Paul Roland is a complete master of his subject.” (Colin Wilson author of ‘The Occult’)
Paul Roland is the author of more than 40 books and has been an equally prolific recording artist releasing 16 albums (including the HP Lovecraft inspired ‘Re-Animator’) on independent labels in the UK, Europe, the USA and Japan since the early 1980s. He has been called “the male Kate Bush” by one-time label mate Robyn Hitchcock and “the godfather of Steampunk”. He has a cult following in Europe where he has toured many times both with his band and as a solo performer.
‘The Curious Case of H.P. Lovecraft’ has been a long cherished project for Paul who presents a new and insightful psychological profile of the most influential horror writer of the 20th century and makes a compelling case for Lovecraft’s creations being an attempt to exorcise his inner demons. Paul also offers a critical assessment of every one of Lovecraft’s published stories plus the complete text of his ‘History of the Necronomicon’ and his ‘Notes on the Writing of Weird Fiction’ as appendices along with the memoirs of his wife Sonia which have been out of print for decades.