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In 1917, prompted by W. Paul Cook and other amateur journalists who had been impressed by two youthful excursions into the weird, "The Beast in the Cave" (l905) and "The Alchemist" (1908), H. P. Lovecraft wrote "The Tomb" and "Dagon," the tales that mark the start of his career as an author of horror fiction. Over the next few years he would circulate in the amateur press some three dozen stories, none of them longer than a few thousand words. Ranging from Poe-esque narratives of madness and obsession to dreamlike fantasies in the manner of Lord Dunsany, they show Lovecraft, like any apprentice writer, imitating certain favorite authors on his way to finding his own voice.
Perhaps because of his great fondness for New England, its natural landscape and colonial architecture in particular, Lovecraft did not immediately recognize its suitability as a setting for supernatural horror. Eventually, though, he was able to rise above his literary influences and find inspiration, as Nathaniel Hawthorne had nearly a century earlier, in the history and folklore of New England.
Sad to say, Lovecraft's prejudices mar his initial efforts in this direction. His first tale with a distinct New England setting, "The Terrible Old Man" (1920), amounts to little more than a polemic against the intrusion of people he regarded as "foreigners," that is, the non-English immigrants who came in the nineteenth century as cheap labor to fill the factories of an increasingly industrialized America. His disavowed sketch, "The Street" (1920), is even more tainted by bigotry.
It would take these two false starts before he produced "The Picture in the House" (1920), his first story effectively to employ local New England color. Its opening paragraph amounts to a kind of aesthetic manifesto, with its declaration that "the true epicure in the terrible . . . esteems most of all the ancient, lonely farmhouses of backwoods New England." Here Lovecraft serves notice that he will rely less on stock Gothic trappings and more on his native region as a source for horror.
In a letter dating to 1930, Lovecraft explained to Robert E. Howard, his fellow Weird Tales writer, the psychological underpinnings of the tale:
It is the night-black Massachusetts legendry which packs the really macabre "kick". Here is material for a really profound study in group-neuroticism; for certainly, no one can deny the existence of a profoundly morbid streak in the Puritan imagination. What you say of the dark Saxon-Scandinavian heritage as a possible source of the atavistic impulses brought out by emotional repression, isolation, climactic rigour, and the nearness of the vast unknown forest with its coppery savages, is of vast interest to me, insomuch as I have often both said and written exactly the same thing! Have you seen my old story "The Picture in the House"? If not, I must send you a copy. The introductory paragraph virtually sums up the idea you advance. (Selected Letters III, 174-75)
"The Picture in the House" is also significant for the introduction of what would evolve into Lovecraft's quintessential fictional town, Arkham, Massachusetts. The origin of this name has been a matter of some debate among Lovecraft scholars, but it is all but certain that he had no specific New England town or location in mind at the time he composed "The Picture in the House."
Lovecraft's next Arkham tale happens also to be his first professional work of fiction, the six-part serial "Herbert West--Reanimator" (1921-22). Commissioned by his amateur friend George Julian Houtain for a humor magazine Houtain was starting called Home Brew, it appeared serially under the generic title "Grewsome Tales" in the first six issues of that magazine (February-June 1922). While the local color is perfunctory at best, it is the story in which Miskatonic University makes its debut.
Lovecraft always considered "Herbert West—Reanimator" the worst of his tales because it was written to order and, in its following Houtain's requirement for a startling climax at the end of each segment, violated his emphasis (derived from Poe) for "singleness of impression" (Selected Letters I, 158) in a short story. "In this enforced, laboured, and artificial sort of composition there is nothing of art or natural gracefulness; for of necessity there must be a superfluity of strainings and repetitions in order to make each history compleat. My sole inducement is the monetary reward, which is a guinea [i.e., $5.00] per tale" (Selected Letters I, 157).
At the time Lovecraft began to write "Herbert West," in the fall of 1921, he was unemployed (except for sporadic work as a literary revisionist), with no prospects for work, and with his family inheritance slowly but inexorably dwindling. Five dollars (or about a quarter of a cent per word) was, even then, a very low rate for original fiction, but Lovecraft could ill afford to turn down any means of bringing in a few dollars. Although Home Brew therefore became the first venue for Lovecraft's professionally published fiction, he was no doubt relieved when that "vile rag" (Selected Letters IV, 170), folded sometime in 1924.
Despite such self-criticism Lovecraft did take considerable care in the tale's construction. The plot builds in neat, logical increments from one section to the next. It may in fact be a virtue that Herbert West's grotesque antics are more likely to raise a smile than a shudder. Readers of those first six issues of Houtain's humor magazine should not have been disappointed by this blackly comic farce of a horror story.
The wild exuberance of "Herbert West" continues in "The Hound" (1922), which Lovecraft would years later dismiss as "a piece of junk" (Selected Letters III, 192). Again, in a mood of severe self-assessment, he seems to have forgotten that he could only have written this extravagant narrative with tongue at least partly in cheek. Like the earlier tale, "The Hound" has a kind of naive charm, not least because the anonymous narrator and his pal St. John, for all their "decadent" pursuits, never indulge in any sexual escapades. It would remain for Poppy Z. Brite in her story "Thy Tongue Shall Taste of Wormwood," an obvious homage to "The Hound," to lay on the eroticism so conspicuously lacking in Lovecraft's tale.
In early October, 1924, the prospect of viewing some colonial-era buildings drew Lovecraft from New York, where he had been living since his marriage to Sonia Greene the previous March, to Elizabeth, New Jersey. There he was captivated by an old house (alas, no longer standing), because it reminded him of a house on Benefit Street in Providence where his aunt Lillian Clark once resided. Later that month he wrote "The Shunned House," his first tale to make use of an actual New England locale, undisguised. It is a heartfelt exercise, but after a lyrical and leisurely opening this lengthy story bogs down in a welter of data concerning births, marriages, and deaths. The horror ultimately unearthed is inert and despatched with relative ease.
As in "The Hound," the most important relationship in "The Shunned House" is between two men, the unnamed narrator and his beloved "antiquarian uncle," Elihu Whipple. Whipple is probably a composite portrait of Lovecraft's two learned uncles-in-law and maternal grandfather, all of whom were long gone by the 1920s. The tale's dominant mood is wistful and nostalgic—fear scarcely enters the equation—hinting at the homesickness that Lovecraft was beginning to express in letters to his aunts as the emotional strain between him and Sonia worsened. They would separate at year's end.
His next two stories, "The Horror at Red Hook" and "He," both composed in August 1925, reflect Lovecraft's disillusionment with New York. Two months later he wrote his friend and fellow fantasist Clark Ashton Smith "The idea that black magic exists in secret today, or that hellish antique rites still survive in obscurity, is one that I have used & shall use again. When you see my new tale 'The Horror at Red Hook', you will see what use I make of the idea in connexion with the gangs of young loafers & herds of evil-looking foreigners that one sees everywhere in New York." (Selected Letters II, 27) Once again racism makes a poor premise for a horror tale.
"The Horror at Red Hook" may well represent a stab at writing a commercial occult detective yarn. It seems unlikely that Lovecraft would have bothered to give so much irrelevant information about his improbable protagonist, the Irish dreamer turned Brooklyn policeman, unless he had conceived of him as a series character. Mercifully we have only a single adventure featuring detective Thomas Malone. For once Lovecraft was not being overly modest when he said of "The Horror of Red Hook," "The tale is long and rambling, and I don't think it is very good." (Selected Letters II, 20)
That said, it should be noted that "The Horror at Red Hook" was one of the few Lovecraft stories anthologized in his lifetime, in Christine Campbell Thomson's You'll Need a Night Light (1927). In addition, the tale is dignified by a mention in the Encyclopedia of New York City (1995), edited by Kenneth T. Jackson, under the entry for Red Hook: "The ambience of the neighborhood in the 1930s and 1940s is conveyed in Arthur Miller's play The View from the Bridge, Elia Kazan's film On the Waterfront, and H.P. Lovecraft's short story 'The Horror at Red Hook.'"
Lovecraft would produce his best story with a New York setting only when he knew he was on the verge of leaving what he had come to call the "pest zone." Written in March 1926, "Cool Air" repeats the peculiar lodger theme first used in "The Music of Erich Zann" (1921). But where the narrator of the earlier tale fit the romantic type of the poor student, alone in some imaginary neighborhood of what appears to be Paris, the narrator of "Cool Air" belongs to the gritty, recognizable world of Manhattan, where he struggles to make a living by writing for cheap magazines. His speech is plain and to the point, free of the sort of lofty rhetoric that, for example, opens "The Picture in the House." "Cool Air" shows Lovecraft capable of using an understated, naturalistic style to powerful effect.
With his return to Providence from New York exile in the spring of 1926, Lovecraft entered the most intensely productive period of his writing career. The first tale to flow from his pen was "The Call of Cthulhu," which he had plotted a full year earlier, as recorded in his diary entry for August 12-13, 1925: "Write out story plot—'The Call of Cthulhu.'" The result was Lovecraft's most ambitious and complex tale to date, a dense and subtle narrative in which the horror gradually builds to cosmic proportions. Appropriately enough it is the source for August Derleth's popular if problematic label, the "Cthulhu Mythos."
As in "The Shunned House," the narrator (identified as Francis Wayland Thurston only in a sort of footnote to the title) investigates evidence of weirdness in Providence. He even has an elderly "grand-uncle," but unlike Elihu Whipple, Professor George Gammell Angell is dead and off-stage, the apparent victim of foul play. Thurston evinces no sentiment over his relative's loss, in contrast to the feelings of the earlier tale's narrator for his late uncle. Thurston may betray his sensitivity to colonial architecture in passing, but his focus is firmly on the outré artifacts that point to disturbing doings in New Orleans, the South Pacific, and elsewhere around the globe. By the end he is too overwhelmed by cosmic angst over the entire human race to waste tears over the merely personal.
When it appeared in Weird Tales, "The Call of Cthulhu" impressed many of that magazine's readers, including Robert E. Howard, the creator of Conan, who was moved to write to "The Eyrie," the Weird Tales letters column: "Mr. Lovecraft's latest story, 'The Call of Cthulhu,' is indeed a masterpiece, which I am sure will live as one of the highest achievements of literature. Mr. Lovecraft holds a unique position in the literary world; he has grasped, to all intents, the worlds outside our paltry ken. His scope is unlimited, and his range is cosmic."
The tale also attracted the attention of an anthologist, T. Everett Harré, who reprinted it in a volume entitled Beware After Dark! (1929). A few months before his death, Lovecraft described "The Call of Cthulhu" as "rather middling--not as bad as the worst, but full of cheap and cumbrous touches." (Selected Letters V, 348) This modest assessment does nothing to undermine the story's standing as one of his bleakest fictional expressions of man's insignificant place in the universe.
A couple of months after writing "The Call of Cthulhu," Lovecraft resumed to more down to earth, or "beneath the earth," horror in "Pickman's Model." Set in Boston, which he knew well from amateur journalist conventions there earlier in the decade, it presents a vision of colonial (and modern) New England threatened by monsters—ghouls who haunt graveyards, cellars, and subways—that make the aged cannibal of "The Picture in the House" seem a harmless crank by comparison. Lovecraft described "Pickman's Model" to one correspondent as "one of my very tamest and mildest effusions" (Selected Letters, 170). Indeed, the tale is filled with touches of sardonic humor the equal of anything in Ambrose Bierce.
Lovecraft uses a colloquial, conversational style as in "Cool Air," though here there are two voices, that of the respectable clubman Thurber and that of the morbid painter Richard Upton Pickman. Both the framing narrative and the sub-narrative are rich with references to New England lore. The tale is a well-nigh perfect example of Poe's unity of effect principle. The one weakness is the contrived ending, though it is hard to imagine how else Thurber might have emerged alive from Pickman's hellish studio with some final piece of confirming evidence. In "Pickman's Model" Lovecraft succeeded in painting in prose a story as meticulous in its realism and as shocking in its implications as any portrait from the fiendish brush of Richard Upton Pickman.
Lovecraft's liberating surge of creativity in the wake of his escape from New York lasted into the following year. Other works of this period include two of his three short novels, The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath (1926-27) and The Case of Charles Dexter Ward (1927), as well as the tale Lovecraft himself would rate at his best, "The Colour Out of Space" (1927). Thereafter his pace slowed considerably, and in the remaining decade of his life he was to write on average only one original story a year. With the exception of At the Mountains of Madness (1931), they all employ New England settings, and even the narrator of that novel cannot help invoking the Boston subway to describe the horror he discovers in the cold wastes of Antarctica.
Lovecraft's last story to set Arkham at center stage is "The Thing on the Doorstep" (1933). While the early parts of "The Shadow Out of Time" (1934-35) take place in Arkham, the narrator, Nathaniel Wingate Peaslee, is at pains to explain at the outset that despite "the traditions of horror, madness, and witchcraft which lurked behind the ancient Massachusetts town," the shadow that fell so suddenly upon him was from "outside sources"; these later carry him in his dreams far beyond Arkham. By contrast, in "The Thing on the Doorstep" the action is limited to Arkham, with an occasional foray to Tinsmouth and the remote Maine forest.
Most critics agree that "The Thing on the Doorstep," together with "The Dreams in the Witch House" (1932), rank as the poorest of Lovecraft's later tales. In the context of an obvious and melodramatic plot, punctuated by patches of histrionic monologue in the mouth of the protagonist, the poet Edward Derby, the Arkham background comes across as rather formulaic. Fortunately, the tale has some redeeming features. "The Thing on the Doorstep" is the only Lovecraft story with a strong or important female character—though of course the malign Ephraim Waite has usurped his daughter Asenath's consciousness. If Lovecraft avoids exploring the possibilities inherent in this gender-swapping situation, his narrator, the staid Daniel Upton, has plenty to say about Edward Derby's psychological development or lack of it. Where cosmic forces usually overtake the typical Lovecraft hero such as Peaslee by chance, here Derby has only his own weak personality to blame for his falling victim to his wife's nefarious designs.
"The Haunter of the Dark," Lovecraft's last original tale, represents a return to form at shorter length. He wrote it in November 1935, prompted by the acceptance of both At the Mountains of Madness and "The Shadow Out of Time" by Astounding, a major science fiction magazine. The protagonist, Robert Blake, owes his origin to Lovecraft's young protégé, Robert Bloch, but Blake's chief interest is as a self-portrait of the author, a contented bachelor living in a near-colonial-vintage house in the College Hill area of Providence, Rhode Island, with friendly cats lying just outside his window. Never mind that Blake will meet his doom after inadvertently stirring up a horror lurking in the steeple of a distant church visible from that window. At the end of the day "The Haunter of the Dark" amounts to a vision of H.P. Lovecraft in paradise.