Sunday, October 11, 2009

Our Lovecraftian World: Is The Kingdom Opening? Pt.5

H.P. Lovecraft's extreme skepticism of all things occult almost brought him into an alliance with Harry Houdini! The famous stage magician was quite the skeptic and debunker himself. The two had come into contact when Lovecraft revised a fictionalized account of one of Houdini's adventures. In this story the famous magician escapes bandits and much worse in the tunnels beneath the Great Pyramids ("Imprisoned with the Pharaohs".) Houdini was enthusiastic about Lovecraft's rewrite, and the two exchanged letters talking of possible future collaborations. They were to write a book with the title The Cancer of Superstition, with another Providence based author, C.M. Eddy. The three men thought this book would bring a sledge-hammer sized blow against superstition and the occult. Harry Houdini's untimely death in 1926 stopped the project.

However much of a hard-nosed skeptic Lovecraft may have been, he had to have had some familiarity with the literature of occultism. This familiarity grew as Lovecraft got older. When Lovecraft died at the young age of 46, his library had books such as Lewis Spencer's Encyclopedia of Occultism, Sir Walter Scott's Letters on Demonology and Witchcraft, Camille Flammarion's Haunted House in it. There were also numerous books on subjects like folklore, mythology, and ghosts. Lovecraft also borrowed books on occult matters from his friends and libraries-among them were Charles Fort's Book of the Damned and New Lands. Lovecraft even mentions Fort by name in a couple of stories. So as anti-occult and anti-esoteric, as Lovecraft may have been, he did have more than a passing interest in these subjects to imbue his tales with their bone-chilling otherness.

Another very important way to understand Lovecraft the man and Lovecraft the writer is to know of the love he had for New England. I have already mentioned the unhappy time he spent in the hustle and bustle of New York City. I think his antipathy towards the city also had a lot to do with his affection for the ancient as opposed to the new-besides just the hard times he experienced with employment. Lovecraft always returned to Providence and New England. He worked hard at looking into the region's folktales and discovered some legends that found a way into his fiction. An old edition of Cotton Mather's Magnalia Christi Americani held pride of place in Lovecraft's library. Mather will be familiar to some of you and maybe not so to others. Cotton Mather (1663-1728) was a renowned New England minister. His sermons and writings helped to foster the belief in witchcraft and played an indirect role in the Salem witch trials. Mather devoted on section of his book to the witch trials and another to various paranormal happenings-from ghosts, poltergeists and supernatural warnings.

In a sermon Mather delivered that was reprinted in Magnalia, he talks of the punishments God inflicted upon sinners. A young man that stands out in the story commits bestiality. The young man had a very noticeable blemish in his eye. His sin is exposed to all when a farm animal gives birth to an abomination bearing the same mark. The young man confesses to his sin and is executed by the authorities.

Lovecraft received great pleasure when he visited Salem in 1923. Salem's old houses and charming colonial squares boosted his spirits tremendously. In Salem's Charter Street Burying Ground, he found a willow growing around a shattered gravestone, with a disintegrating old house behind it. This particular house, which still exists today, was once the home of Nathaniel Hawthorne's fiancee, and served as the spark for that author's "Dr. Grimshawe's Secret." This house had a lasting impression on Lovecraft, and because he had been familiar with the folktales of New England families who kept ill or deformed children hidden away, Lovecraft was able to mesh these elements together with Mather's tale to write "The Unnameable."

Two men, in this story, talk about whether anything can be "unnameable"-in a cemetery. One of them, Joel Manton, maintains that nothing can fit this description-can be unnameable. The only place this might happen, he says is in a cheap horror story. But the narrator of the story insists that such a thing can exist, and refers to Mather's story. In this version of Mather's tale, the half-human beast grows into a monster that terrorizes the countryside. It also assaults people on the roads and slays the parson and his family. The townsfolk lock the hybrid beast in the attic of its father's house, where it dies. The grand finale to this story is that the narrator reveals that he found the creature's bones and buried them-in the grave right beneath the two men. Once this fact is revealed the monstrosity reappears and ambushes the men.

Lovecraft, of course, didn't believe in witches, but the Salem witch trials of 1692 held a fascination for him, and are a common motif in Lovecraft's stories. He was intrigued by what he saw as the morbidity of the Puritan way of life, and was all too aware that the executions happened just a short train ride away from Providence. Lovecraft never wrote a story directly concerning the trials, but he mixed them with other occult beliefs to create his own literary version of such events.

In "Pickman's Model," Richard Upton Pickman is a talented painter from an old Salem family. Several of his ancestors were hanged during the witch trials. The problem is that Pickman's paintings show pure genius at work, but they are so grotesque and morbid that all of the local artists shy away from him-even reject him. Hurting inside from the rejection by his fellow artists, Pickman invites his friend Thurber to a secret apartment in Boston's North End, where he shows him a series of paintings. These paintings put forth the idea that the witches had business with corpse-eating monsters that burrow beneath cemeteries and cities. In the final analysis, it is revealed that they have quite a bit to do with Pickman's own dark ancestry.

I am going to try to do one more article today. I am getting really fumble-fingered so can't promise anything. Best to anyone stopping by!


Autumnforest said...

I have to admit, I've never read Lovecraft, just seen movies inspired by his stories (probably not a good way to introduce yourself to an author, just look at Stephen King movies). I'm going to have to borrow some of my son's books and see what I think, but I'll wait until I'm done editing my novel. I can't read horror writers when I'm writing because I'm terrified it will change the feel of my own writing. I've long wondered how a man could be so ahead of the spiritualist movement in his thinking. He took it to a new step and I wondered if he had something strange happen as a child or had a deep belief in the occult or ghosts. This is really interesting. He himself would make a nice complex character for his own stories. In one of the manuscripts I'm writing now, the lead character is a psychic seeking out proof of ghosts, she grew up in a haunted house where many things happened, but she still doesn't know if she believes in ghosts (sounds like me, huh?) When I told a writer friend about this character she said, "that's impossible. No one will be believe it." But, since I'm inside that character's head (or I should say, she's inside mine) it's really quite easy to explain how she comes by her skepticism. You know, Stephen King has a formula that replays over and over (ensemble cast, 50s/60s sentimentality, buddies, an alcoholic parent...) but I didn't really see that in the movies based on Lovecraft that I've seen. I appreciate that. It's easy as a writer to insert the things we know over and over again. Great series you're writing! Just think, this whim to write about Lovecraft just got a horror writer inspired and wanting to read his works and thinking about how he died at 46 and I'm 47 and have yet to get published yet. Definitely it's prodding me on!

Devin said...

Autumnforest thanks again for all of your excellent comments-I am so tired I probably should have waited til tomorrow to answer them cause my eyes are crossing :-)
thank you also for putting bits of your writing up on your blog!
Lovecraft did inspire a great many writers and i had no idea how many until i started working on this series
I completely understand about wanting to write something and be published -I think the key is not to give up -I think i mentioned about that friend of our family's who has now passed away and how I wish I still had access to the manuscript to try to get it published for him posthumously -it was such a great book he was a professor at Denver University and cut his book down so bad-its name was "Compound" and he called it "Dogpound" -and I told him I would smack him if he cut his work down again in front of me:-) one more time !
miss him a lot
thanks as always for your well thought out comments and sorry I couldnt answer it better
i hope you have a beautiful night autumnforest!!

X. Dell said...

Perhaps it's a reflection of today's debunkers, who often don't know the subject matter they're debunking all that well. (Hence, good debunkers are worth their weight in platinum.) So it might come as a surprise to us that Lovecraft would actually know much about the occult.

I know that Houdini did--and even indulged in it for awhile for purposes of investigation. He was fairly conscientious in his approach, though, and looked earnestly to see how the mediums pulled off their "miracles." As an illusionist, he could see right through them, whereas academics and scientists could not.

In this sense, perhaps it's possible that Lovecraft's writing might in some sense be ironic. In other words, he might be poking fun at something he sees as mumbo-jumbo in a very deadpan way that we might have all misinterpreted.

Devin said...

I think your last sentence is the way Lovecraft truly felt Xdell-even tho -many will tell you different and say he was a "natural adept" and the like-that Lovecraft's beings should have such a psychic charge however is no surprise to me at all -as many times if people think and believe in all their hearts something is real -it becomes real-at least to them if not others! thanks again for your great comments -as always!!