Thursday, September 24, 2015

A Cyclopean Edifice of Words Appertaining to ye Eldritch Scribe H.P. Lovecaft

Anybody who's spoken to me for any length of time in the last seven years will have some idea of my fascination with Herman Melville. If I'm being honest with myself, I'll call it what it really is: a crush. A mancrush. A braincrush. A soulcrush. I've called Moby-Dick a religious experience. It is the third testament: beyond the Torah and beyond the Gospel sounds the Whale. I'll vociferate against any abridged version of the book, as the interminable descriptions of whales and the tools and methods of the 1840s fishery aren't only necessary, they comprise some of the best parts of the novel. I sit in awe of Melville's inspired profusion, his roving, veritably apophenic eye for parable and analogy, his ecstasy, the tenacity with which he put a lens to the unresolvable ambiguities of human life. I've read four of his n novels, a decent-sized chunk of his poetry, and most of his short fiction. I have no desire to depart from this life before I've gone over his entire corpus. (Yesterday I happened into a used book and record store near South Street with a copy of White Jacket on the shelf. It shall be next on the list.)

But Melville isn't the author nearest to my heart. That distinction belongs to Howard Phillips Lovecraft.

From The Haunter of the Dark: And Other
Grotesque Visions,
illus. John Coulthart

More than anything else, it was matter of timing: Lovecraft was the author who made the greatest impression on me during my teenage years. (John Steinbeck is a rather distant runner-up.) Somewhere on the borderline of middle school and high schoool, when I was still heavily into Magic: the Gathering (ask me later how I feel about the return of the Eldrazi, by the way) I tried never to miss an issue of InQuest magazine—once Wizard's sister-publication, treating CCGs and tabletop RPGs. It was in the pages of InQuest I first read about Cthulhu, the Mi-Go, and their neurotic New England chronicler. Most of the issues in my collection carried ads for the latest expansion set for the Mythos CCG, and the occasional "how to" article about setting the tone of a tabletop RPG session referred to Chaosium's Call of Cthulhu RPG. But it was the magazine's whimsical humor pieces (often penned by editor Rick Swan) that most caught my attention. Once a year or so, InQuest conducted what might be called the print precursor to the ComicVine character battle thread, pitting famous sci-fi and fantasy characters against each other in single combat. I remember very few of them: Paul Altrides (Dune) vs. Luke Skywalker (Star Wars). The marine (DOOM) vs. a Predator (from Predator). King Arthur vs. Elric (of Michael Moorcock's novels). One of the matchups was Sauron (Lord of the Rings) vs. Lovecraft's Cthulhu. I can still paraphrase how that one went:

ROUND 1: Sauron amasses an army of orcs and evil men and marches them through the gates of Mordor. 
ROUND 2: Cthulhu eats them. 
ROUND 3: Sauron summons the the Uruk-Hai, his ally Saruman the wizard, and a horde of goblins and sends them after Cthulhu.  
ROUND 4: Cthulhu eats them. 
ROUND 5: Sauron grows desperate. He sends forth the Balrog, the Nazgûl mounted upon fell beasts, and the dragon Smaug. 
ROUND 6: Cthulhu eats them. 
ROUND 7: Sauron glances around nervously. Cthulhu yawns and smacks his lips. Sauron slithers away. 
WINNER: Cthulhu

Another feature in another issue was a transcribed sportscast of a "Monster Olympics" in which teams of beasties from Universal Pictures, Lord of the Rings, Magic: the Gathering, Dungeons & Dragons, and Lovecraft's mythos compete in athletic events. I recall Yog-Sothoth cinching the gold in the 100-meter dash by just teleporting across the finish line at the sound of the gun, only to lose the boxing final to M:tG's Spinal Villain.

Gosh, there's a scan of that right here.


Yog-Sothoth seems to be wearing Mike Tyson's severed head. I don't remember how that came about. Man, I wish I could find my old InQuest collection—or that there were more scans floating around the web. (I suddenly recall the Balrog sweeping the ballet competition.)

ANYWAY, the stuff in InQuest stoked my curiosity regarding this guy Lovecraft and the all-powerful tentacled aliens/gods associated with his name, and so I began reading the paperback collections published by Ballantine/Del Rey: The Transition of H.P. Lovecraft: The Road to Madness; The Dream-Cycle of H.P. Lovecraft: Dreams of Terror and Death; and The Best of H.P. Lovecraft:Bloodcurdling Tales of Horror and the Macabre. Looking back on them now, I can't but be critical of their curators. The collections run somewhat along chronological lines, but are for the most part divvied up by theme: The Road to Madness collects most of Lovecraft's early imitations of Poe, but also contains his most mature and ambitious work, the short novel At the Mountains of Madness. Bloodcurdling Tales of Horror and the Macabre showcases most of the cosmic horror pieces of a developed Lovecraft, mixed with the higher-grade material from his early period ("The Rats in the Walls," "The Music of Erich Zann")—but the title rather misrepresents the otherwordliness and alien terror forming the emotional and thematic crux of Lovecraft's best fiction (and his truly "macabre" stories are those collected in The Road to Madness). Dreams of Terror and Death collects most of the dream-fiction overlapping both Lovecraft's ersatz Poe and cosmic horror periods (along with some early/middle phase horror/fantasy stuff like The Case of Charles Dexter Ward, "The Hound," and "The Nameless City" that didn't make it into the other collections), and the title could not be less appropriate in light of stories like The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath, "The Quest of Iranon," "Beyond the Wall of Sleep," "Ex Oblivione," and "Celephaïs." By no metric are these horror stories.

I don't know what happened to my copies of the Ballantine/Del Rey collections. Since losing or lending them out I've collected Barnes & Noble's H.P. Lovecraft: The Complete Fiction, both volumes of S.T. Joshi's The Annotated H.P. Lovecraft, and Leslie Klinger's giant-size The New Annotated H.P. Lovecraft (with a very nice introduction by Alan Moore), so I don't count the missing Ballantine/Del Rey editions as much of a loss. (The next time I'm snowed in, I plan to sit down for a few hours comparing Joshi's notes with Klinger's.)

But for the creme of my collection I have to thank my mother. In retrospect, I'm pretty sure she observed me reading these Lovecraft books and was quietly thrilled to see me interested in something other than Magic cards or video games. She must have wanted to keep nudging my attention towards books instead of CD-ROM and cardboard narcotics, so for my fifteenth or sixteenth birthday she giftwrapped a couple of first-edition HPL hardbacks: Miscellaneous Writings, Selected Letters Volume V, and an Epicure in the Terrible: A Centennial Anthology of Essays in Honor of H.P. Lovecraft. Were it not for these books, my interest in Lovecraft might have fizzled out midway through my teens. It is one thing to read somebody's stories; it is another to read his correspondence with friends, his personal essays, and his writings about writing in conjunction with his fiction—to be not only familiar with what he wrote, but with the dreams and ideas and convictions drove him to write what he did, and to write it the way he did.

Miscellaneous Writings and Selected Letters exerted more of an influence on me than I have vocally acknowledged. Among the pieces collected in Miscellaneous Writings are some essays about Lovecraft's philosophy of "mechanistic materialism" (namely "Life for Humanity's Sake," and "In Defence of Dagon") which tidally shaped my worldview as an apostate Christian veering towards atheism, and certainly reinforced the cynical view of humanity I'd come to adopt. The writings where he describes his satisfaction and joy participating in the amateur journal scene (which we might appropriately call a precursor to the "zine" phenomenon of the late twentieth century), allowing him the freedom to write what he wished to write for a small but appreciative (and largely reciprocal) audience—money and the markets be damned—surely affected, for better and/or worse, my own creative trajectory, and might have something to do with my working on an ultra-niche sprite comic in my early twenties, tending a blog that clearly isn't reaching for popular attention (or even trying to focus on any one subject), and writing short stories that are more likely than not to be shared via email than circulated in lit journals. But the most salient characteristic conveyed through Miscellaneous Writings is the author's zeal to pursue and master all the subjects that interested him, and to integrate them into a comprehensive and consistent worldview. I admired that then, and my admiration has only increased.

Unfortunately, many of the pieces in Miscellaneous Writings showcase certain political and racial views we'd be much too kind to call "retrograde." These I read with an intellectual and emotional aloofness. I never quite thought of Lovecraft as a "friend," as some readers do their favorite authors—to me his is something more like the antisocial, acerbic, often brilliant (and perpetually entertaining) punkish/gothish/raverish/social outcast high school seniors with whom I shared a cafeteria table during study hall when I was a sophomore. I wasn't a companion so much as a receptive listener. Every weekday I listened to their stories, their rants, their ideas. I liked these people, laughed with them, admired them for some things, and really disagreed with them on others. They were immovably set in ways that weren't mine, and I was in no position, I could do nothing to change their minds. With Lovecraft then and today it is much the same. He's the weird older kid across from me at the lunch table whom I never see outside of study hall, but with whom I've somehow come to a one-sided confidential understanding.

When I was transferring my books to my new digs in Philadelphia, I turned to a page in Selected Letters Volume V I must have earmarked more than a decade ago, and discovered the reason I must have wanted to remember it. In a letter to E. Hoffman Price (August 15, 1934), Lovecraft states: "Art is not what one resolves to say, but what insists on saying itself through one." Here I imagined I'd figured that out on my own, known it all along—when it is in fact just one more thing I owe to HPL.

It should be said that Lovecraft wrote a lot of letters, and a lot of long letters. His body of fiction is positively dwarfed by his epistolary output. Someone who caught one of his stories in Weird Tales might drop him a one-paragraph note, to which he was apt to pen a five to ten page reply. But most of what's collected in Volume V, however, is between Lovecraft and his circle of buddies in the fantastic fiction scene, whom he addresses by Necronomic homonyms. Clark Ashton Smith becomes "Klarkash-Ton;" William Fredrick Anger becomes "An-Gah, Hierophant of Lemuria;" Kenneth Sterling becomes "Illustrious Khah-Es," and so on; and the letters close with silly arcane benedictions like "Yrs for the Avatar of Tsathoggua," "Yrs for the Black Apocalypse," "Yrs for the sunken monolith of Gnoph," "Yrs by the Seal of the Third Gate," and "Yrs. by the Eyeless Slug of Pnath."

Lovecraft was a weirdo. I don't doubt for a moment he was on the spectrum; correspondence was clearly his preferred mode of relationship. The joy he derives from receiving and writing letters is effusive, as is the sense of humor that he usually excludes from his fiction. From a 1936 letter to Willis Conover:
Has Yog-Sothoth a pedigree? No. He has always existed. Since he has no parents, I've never met 'em. He isn't housebroken, so I generally try to chain him outside. When he sends forth a pseudopodic tentacle (which can pass through the most solid walls) and begins to grope around inside the house, I usually call his attention to something going on in another galaxy——just to get his mind off local things. Yog doesn't always have long, ropy arms, since he assumes a variety of shapes——solid, liquid, and gaseous——at will. Possibly, though, he's fondest of the form which does have 'em. I've never encouraged him to scratch my back, since those whom Yog-Sothoth touches are never seen again...at least, in any recognizable shape.
Oh, jeez. And here we see Lovecraft grumping it up like the prematurely old man he was:
I have no use for the shallow, self-conscious freak who grows long hair, or wears windsor ties, or cultivates boorish or affected manners. That isn't originality, but merely standardized mediocrity's effort to ape originality. I like a person to be quiet & unobtrusive, but really individual in his tastes & perceptions & intellectual or artistic expression. Nor do I like freaks whose differences from the average——even if genuine——are merely the result of callousness, stupidity, or disease....the anti-social criminal or bum or ruthless leader, or the sadist or sissy or generally sloppy mess. That isn't harmonious imaginative independence, but merely bad construction or malfunctioning.
I'm really bummed that HP hadn't lived another twenty-five years, long enough to see the rise of the Beats. I really love Ginsberg, but it would be a hoot to read Lovecraft kvetching about him, Kerouac, and the other nogoodniks in their circle. (I won't even pretend there's a possibility he would have warmed to them.)

I bet it would have been a lot of fun to shoot emails back and forth with Lovecraft. It would probably have to be email: I can't imagine him being into Facebook (he was quite open about his disgust for the quotidian activities of human life), and he would have been outraged at any platform that demanded he condense his messages into 140 characters. I could see him being rather active (and probably insufferable) on Reddit, though.

Selected Letters Volume V is the last in the series, and comprises the period between 1934 and Lovecraft's death in 1937. While the humor and enthusiasm are certainly present (as is Lovecraft's somewhat surprising conversion to socialism in the climate of the Great Depression), this was also the period where his financial troubles were growing ever more acute, his health was deteriorating, and his confidence in himself and his powers was terminally shaken. As I sit with the book in my lap now I notice Lovecraft's final words in the same letter to E. Hoffman Price I bookmarked, which give me some pause as I consider sending a cover letter and resume to some Philadelphia businesses offering copy writing/SEO gigs:
God knows I want a job——but I want it to be anything——elevator man, pickaxe artist, night-watchman, stevedore, what the hell——except writing. Anything except a parody of the only thing in life that means anything to me.
In the context of the letter, Lovecraft was talking about getting paid by the word for authoring commercial pulp fiction. But he also had some experience writing ad copy, which actually appears in Miscellaneous Writings. This was in 1925, during his "New York period," which may have been the unhappiest period of his life. Lovecraft had no desire to write anything unless it meant something to him. In his final years, a series of rejection slips for what are now regarded as some of his best stories was eroding the joy he took from writing, as the intestinal cancer was eating away at his health. Reading some of the notes in Volume V can be a little painful:
I've finished The Shadow out of Time——65 pages of pencil script. I am woefully dissatisfied with it, and may destroy this version as I did the first last autumn. In my present state of doubt I am reluctant to type the thing——so Comte d'Erlette has generously agreed to attempt a deciphering of the original text, and render a tentative verdict. If he says it's worth saving, I shall get a typed copy somehow and send it on the rounds....


*          *          *

It might be said that I am just about two inches from the suicide level——among that vast majority for whom existence is the barest shade preferable to non-existence. But of course that bare shade makes a vast amount of difference. What keeps me alive is the ability to look back to the past & imagine I am still in 1902 or 1903. Of all my dreams, about 0.8 are of that period....Thus the world of the early 1900's still exists for me in about a third of the hours of my lonely life....I certainly do get a lot of pleasure from books, travel (when I can travel), philosophy, the arts, history, antiquarianism, scenery, the sciences, & so on . . . & from such poor attempts in the way of aesthetic creation (= fantastic fiction) as I can kid myself into thinking I can sometimes achieve. The reason I have been more melancholy than usual in the last few years is that I am coming to distrust more & more the value of the material I produce. Adverse criticism has of late vastly undermined my confidence in my literary powers. And so it goes.


*          *          *

Just finished a new story——The Haunter of the Dark——though I'm not sure if it's worth typing.

"The Haunter of the Dark" would be the last story Lovecraft ever wrote. And so it goes.


My heart sometimes aches for Lovecraft. Imagine lying on your deathbed, fully convinced that your life's work was ultimately a failure. I imagine it's something most of us fear and try to avoid thinking about.

It is a little embarrassing to admit, but for idle minutes every now and then—during a train ride, waiting in a long line, walking down the sidewalk—I'll imagine myself hopping into a time machine and skimming backwards to 1937, and visiting Lovecraft in his room at Jane Brown Hospital in Providence a few days before his death. "Okay, listen," I'm telling him, knowing that he is either too full of morphine to take in what I'm saying or is otherwise warily regarding my uncombed hair and shabby clothes. "This is going to sound crazy, but I'm from the twenty-first century. And I think there's something you should see."

And then I drop my collection onto his lap. BOOM! "IT WASN'T ALL FOR NOTHING, YOU MAGNIFICENT SPERGLORD. IN THE TWENTY-FIRST CENTURY YOU'RE KIND OF A BIG DEAL. See these? These are the films based on your work, some made as recently as 2011. (Although most of them are real pieces of shit; you should see how they butchered 'The Dunwich Horror.') Look, look at these graphic novel adaptations of your best stories. Here's a video game based on 'The Shadow Over Innsmouth!' And look at all this Cthulhu merchandise! Amusing T-shirts! Adorable plush dolls! VOTE CTHULHU bumper stickers! Eh? EH??"


...Actually, I don't think Lovecraft's mood would be much improved after he'd processed all of this. Lovecraft was something of an elitist, disdaining "low" culture. He had little interest in cinema, antipathy for popular fiction, and certainly no use for kitsch.

In that case, I might have shown him the Jorge Luis Borges volume (Collected Fictions, trans. Andrew Hurley) I've been tearing through after devouring Labyrinths last month. Maybe he'd be more pleased at seeing the nod given him by one of the twentieth century's most renowned geniuses of world literature.

While reading Borges's "The Immortal," I had a prolonged moment of deja vu. Let me show you.

In this passage, the narrator Marcus Flavius Aurelius of the Roman Empire has discovered the City of Immortals atop an insurmountable plateau. In the base of the plateau he finds an opening in the rocks. After wandering through a dark, subterranean maze for longer than he can be certain, he ascends to the city itself:
I emerged into a kind of small plaza——a courtyard might better describe it. It was surrounded by a single building, of irregular angles and varying heights. It was to this heterogeneous building that the many cupolas and columns belonged. More than any other feature of that incredible monument, I was arrested by the great antiquity of its construction. I felt that it had existed before humankind, before the world itself. Its patent antiquity (though somehow terrible to my eyes) seemed to accord with the labor of immortal artificers. Cautiously at first, with indifference as time went on, desperately toward the end, I wandered the staircases and inlaid floors of that labyrinthine palace. (I discovered that the width and height of the treads on the staircases were not constant; it was this that explained the extraordinary weariness I felt.) This palace is the work of the gods, was my first thought. I explored the uninhabited spaces, and I corrected myself: The gods that built this place have died. Then I reflected upon its peculiarities, and told myself: The gods that built this place were mad. I said this, I know, in a tone of incomprehensible reproof that verged upon remorse——with more intellectual horror than sensory fear. The impression of great antiquity was joined by others: the impression of endlessness, the sensation of oppressiveness and horror, the sensation of complex irrationality. I had made my way through a dark maze, but it was the bright City of the Immortals that terrified and repelled me. A maze is a house built purposely to confuse men; its architecture, prodigal in symmetries, is made to serve that purpose. There were corridors that lead nowhere, unreachably high windows, grandly dramatic doors that opened onto monklike cells or empty shafts, incredible upside-down staircase with upside-down treads and balustrades. Other staircases, clinging airily to the side of a monumental wall, petered out after two or three landings, in the high gloom of the cupolas, arriving nowhere. I cannot say whether these are literal examples I have given; I do know that for many years they plagued my troubled dreams; I can no longer know whether any given feature is a faithful transcription of reality or one of the shapes unleashed by my nights. This City, I thought, is so horrific that its mere existence, the mere fact of its having endured——even in the middle of a secret desert——pollutes the past and future and somehow compromises the stars. So long as this city endures, no one in the world can ever be happy or courageous. I do not want to describe it; a chaos of heterogeneous words, the body of a tiger or a bull pullulating with teeth, organs, and heads monstrously yoked together yet hating each other——those might, perhaps, be approximate images.
I'd been to this place before, and this place is Lovecraft. Pure Lovecraft! This is At the Mountains of Madness. This is R'lyeh from "The Call of Cthulhu." This is the Great Race's city in "The Shadow out of Time." After finishing "The Immortal" I began to wonder if Borges had actually read any of Lovecraft's work. Two hundred forty pages ahead came my answer in the form of a title and a dedication:
There Are More Things
To the memory of H.P. Lovecraft
And there you have it!

The title of "There Are More Things" is taken, of course, from Hamlet's words to an incredulous Horatio. But the story itself is very neatly Lovecraftian; a delightful thematic homage from the Buenos Aires laureate to the Providence oddball. Borges, however, departs from Lovecraft by not sinking a quiver of adjectives into the unearthly creature glimpsed by the narrator at the conclusion, nor does he compose three our four paragraphs detailing the narrator's recoiling from the sight and fit of temporary insanity. It's just as well; people who aren't Lovecraft should never, ever try to write like Lovecraft—and Borges shouldn't write like anyone but Borges.

But the....

Oh.

Huh.

I haven't said much about my copy of An Epicure in the Terrible until now. When I first got my hands on it, I wasn't ready for what it was. Had I been a more attentive or interested student in high school, a compilation of Lovecraft-focused literary criticism might have interested me, but I wasn't intellectually ready for it as a sixteen-year-old who was more interested in trying to piece together the relations of Lovecraft's "Black Pantheon" (a puerile and ultimately futile effort) than reading an essay framing Lovecraft in the context of the Modernist movement. This is kind of thing is much more interesting to me now—and in the middle of typing this I flipped to the back of the book and noticed a piece by Professor Barton Levi St. Armstead of Brown University, titled "Synchronistic Worlds: Lovecraft and Borges." Until now I never noticed it. (The last time I picked the book up was definitely prior to my pilfering a friend's copy of Labyrinths.)

Fascinating:
Borges had not only read some of Lovecraft's major works ("The Shadow out of Time" in particular) but also an account of his life and a modicum of criticism about him. This fact is confirmed by Paul Theroux, who in a 1978 conversation with Borges "about horror stories in general" elicited the perverse revelation that "I like Lovecraft's horror stories. His plots are very good, but his style is atrocious. I once dedicated a story to him."
Huh.

As long as I have the book open, and since we're not on any kind of schedule here, let's look at a chunk of St. Armand's analysis:
Borges, too, can discover a similar "haunted regionalism" in the dining-room cellear of a house in Calle Garay, where the mad poet Carlos Argentino Daneri secrets the Aleph. This "microcosm of alchemists and cabalists" outwardly appears to Borges as "a small iridescent sphere, of almost intolerable brilliance." As he writes:
At first I thought it rotary; then I understood that this movement was an illusion produced by the vertiginous sights it enclosed. The Aleph's diameter must have been about two or three centimeters, but Cosmic Space was in it, without diminution of size. Each object (the mirror's glass, for instance) was infinite objects, for I clearly saw it from all points in the universe.
In "The Haunter of the Dark," Lovecraft's Robert Blake is characteristically even more detailed about the Shining Trapezohedron, the "egg-shaped or irregularly spherical object some four inches through" that he find in the tower-room of the deserted cathedral on Providence's Federal Hill. Lovecraft writes:
The four-inch seeming sphere turned out to be a nearly black, red-striated polyhedron with many irregular flat surfaces; either a very remarkable crystal of some sort, or an artificial object of carved and highly polished mineral matter. It did not touch the bottom of the box, but was held suspended by a means of a metal band around its centre, with seven queerly designed supports extending horizontally to angles of the box's inner wall near the top. This stone, once exposed, exerted upon Blake an almost alarming fascination. He could scarcely tear his eyes from it, and as he looked at its glistening surfaces he almost fancied it was transparent, with half-formed worlds of wonder within. Into his mind floated pictures of alien orbs with great stone towers, and other orbs with titan mountains and no mark of life, and still remoter spaces where only a stirring in the vague blackness told the presence of consciousness and will.
Lovecraft's Trapezohedron seems to partake also of the quality of Borges's "Zahir," that demonic coin which is only the mutable physical token of "beings or things which possess the terrible property of being unforgettable, and whose image finally drives one mad." But it is significant that Lovecraft's cult-object is black rather than iridescent, and even more telling that it vouchsafes a vision of other worlds rather than the complex real one which Borges sees multiplied to the highest power. For horror in Borges is an intensified reality, while horror in Lovecraft is an alternative reality. Words fail Borges because language is too limited to express this reality, while words fail Lovecraft because language is too alien to the reality being expressed. Hence Lovecraft's unpronounceable names and untranslatable chants, his "Cthulhu" and "R'lyeh," are rivaled only, perhaps, by Borges's own tongue-twisting Tlön. Both authors attempt to convey the visions that their gazing-globes afford them, one through a cataloguing of facts that reduces language to a poor, inadequate anthology of reality (Borges) and the other by expanding language poetically to construct a forbidden arcanum of this partial other reality (Lovecraft). Of course, Borges's very concept of the Aleph derives from the alchemical search for a Grand Arcanum, a Great Solvent, a Philosopher's Stone, but Borges is also a student of the Kabbalah who within the frame of the story assumes that God and Reality are one and the same, that to see or decipher God is to see or decipher all reality. But to experience that vision is to be blasted by excess of brightness, since, as Scripture warns us, none sees God and lives. Borges cannot express what he sees because it is "ineffable," while Lovecraft will not express what he sees because it is "unspeakable."
I am pleased to find that St. Armand spends the better part of seven pages holding "The Immortal" in contrast to At the Mountains of Madness and "The Shadow out of Time." But he finds recourse to Jung's collective unconscious to explain the strange "synchronicity" between Lovecraft, Borges, and the unexpected points of contact in their ideas and their bodies of work. The admission of coincidence is a bit of a cop-out, but that's not really the point: he argues that we can understand Borges better by holding him up to Lovecraft, and we can understand Lovecraft better by holding him up to Borges—and their synchronicities are what permit such an examination. It's a worthy exercise, at any rate, because what it yields is an enjoyable read for connoisseurs of either or both authors.

John Coulthart, unused.

Okay. So in the end, maybe Lovecraft wouldn't be too happy to learn that one of the geniuses of twentieth-century world literature knew a little bit about him, but certainly wasn't an admirer, and mixed his praise with some rather harsh criticism. So I might abstain from bringing my copy of Borges's selected fiction to Lovecraft in his deathbed in my imaginary fourth-dimensional Amelie jaunt.

I might just tell him about Pluto, then.

For all his life Lovecraft cherished astronomy. He received a telescope as gift from his mother at the age of thirteen—the same year he produced his very first (self-) published work: The Rhode Island Journal of Astronomy, a hectographed periodical he wrote and passed around between the ages of thirteen and nineteen. Miscellaneous Writings includes a 1906 letter from Lovecraft that appeared in Scientific American:
To the Editor of the Scientific American:

In these days of large telescopes and modern astronomical methods, it seems strange that no vigorous efforts are being made to discover planets beyond the orbit of Neptune, which is now considered the outermost limit of the solar system. It has been noticed that seven comets have their aphelia at a point that would correspond to the orbit of a planet revolving around the sun at a distance of about 100 astronomical units (9,300,000,000 miles).

Now several have suggested that such a planet exists, and has captured the comets by attraction. This is probable, as Jupiter and others also mark the aphelia of many celestial wanderers. The writer has noticed that a great many comets cluster around a point 50 units out, where a large body might revolve. If the great mathematicians of the day should try to compute orbits from these aphelia, it is doubtful they could succeed; but if all the observatories that possess celestial cameras should band together and minutely photograph the ecliptic, as is done in asteroid hunting, the bodies might be revealed on their plates. Even if no discoveries were made, the accurate star photographs would almost be worth the time and trouble.

H.P. LOVECRAFT
Providence, R.I., July 16, 1906.
It is worth pointing out as a reminder that Lovecraft wrote this at the age of sixteen. On the next page of Miscellaneous Writings is a letter to the editor of the Sunday Journal, composed one month later, calling bullshit on an article regarding a book making the case for a hollow earth and citing geological evidence to the contrary. (When I was sixteen, I was memorizing all of Marilyn Manson's lyrics and attempting to draw angsty comics that brazenly ripped off Johnny the Homicidal Maniac.)

While composing "The Whisperer in Darkness" in 1930, Lovecraft was aided by a beautiful stroke of serendipity. In the story, the man called Henry Akeley tells his guest (the lovable, gullible) Wilmarth about a voyage he will shortly be taking in the care of the extraterrestrial "Outer Ones:"
The first trip will be to Yuggoth, the nearest world fully peopled by the beings. It is a strange dark orb at the very rim of our solar system——unknown to earthly astronomers as of yet....At the proper time, you know, the beings there will direct thought-currents toward us and cause it to be discovered——or perhaps let one of their human allies give the scientists a hint.
During the story's composition, Clyde Tombaugh at the Lowell Observatory discovered Pluto. I imagine Lovecraft was giddy at being able to go back and insert lines like this into the draft:
When I left Battleboro I resolved never to go back to Vermont, and I feel quite certain I shall keep that resolution. Those wild hills are surely the outpost of a frightful cosmic race——as I doubt all the less since reading that a new ninth planet has been glimpsed beyond Neptune, just as those influences had said it would be glimpsed. Astronomers, with a hideous appropriateness they little suspect, have named this thing "Pluto." I feel, beyond question, that it is nothing less than nighted Yuggoth——and I shiver when I try to figure out the real reason why its monstrous denizens wish it to be known in this way at this especial time.
So when I'm visiting Lovecraft on his deathbed, I don't bring any collections of his fiction, I don't bring any mythos merchandise. Instead I bring a stack of astronomy books and a few newspaper clippings and computer printouts. I tell him about Sputnik 1. I inform him that in the same century in which he lived most of his life, humanity developed the means to dispatch unmanned probes that could radio data and photographs back to Earth. I'd tell him about the Venera probes. Voyager 1 and Voyager 2. I show him Messenger's full map of Mercury and Sojourner's photographs from the Martian surface. And then I wait a moment to make sure HP's head doesn't explode before I drop the bomb.


I tell him about New Horizons; that a probe launched in 2006 flew past Pluto in 2015. I'll show him the high-definition color photos of the Plutonian surface (which I can hardly believe) and draw his attention to the most prominent surface formation on the southern hemisphere. And then I'll tell him what the astronomers have named it: the Cthulhu Regio.

Then I hold up my copy of Astronomy Today to shield myself from the chunks of skull and brains flying at me from the space above Lovecraft's shoulders hitherto occupied by Lovecraft's head.

In the event his head doesn't explode, I spend my last moments in 1937 reassuring Lovecraft. You aren't a failure, you do have a legacy, and you have no reason not to be proud of what you've accomplished.

After which I would thrust a pen and paper into his hand and advise him to please recant pretty much everything he ever said about foreigners.

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