Moods & Pseudo-memories:
H. P. Lovecraft – Reincarnated?
The following article originally appeared in The Lovecraft eZine of 5 February.
Did Lovecraft ever entertain the notion of having lived previous lives? Never mind ‘Herbert West – Re-animator’; how sounds ‘Howard Lovecraft – Reincarnationist’?
Ah, just listen to those collective groans of incredulity. In fact, I don’t even think it’s a real word. Well, such an idea is fantastic and fabulous in the extreme. He was, after all, the consummate ‘mechanistic materialist’; but if he called it wrong and has not entered that state of non-existence that he yearned for so passionately (“I no longer really desire anything but oblivion”, he once wrote) then he is no doubt whirling madly around Swan Point Cemetery in outrage that I should pen such thoughts on his behalf.
Yet stay with me. I don’t actually believe any such thing myself. It’s just that I’m in the mood to play around with a little whimsy. Perhaps it’s something left over of the Christmas spirit. And Lovecraft, for all his mechanistic materialism, could be as whimsical as the next man.
What? You doubt it? Ah, you’ve spent too much time on those resplendent horrors that he gave us and not enough on that part of his inner life which dealt with dreams and fancies of a different sort.
In general he may not have had a high opinion of the emerging art form that was cinema –well, it was new and that alone could have been enough to doom it in the eyes of the Great Antiquarian – but this didn’t stop him in 1933 from attending no less than four performances of director Frank Lloyd’s Berkely Square. *
I find it rather pleasant to imagine Lovecraft sitting there in a darkened theater, engrossed in the story of Peter Standish (Leslie Howard), a twentieth century man who has become obsessed with a diary left behind by his ancestor in 1784. And of course this film was released some six and a half years after HPL had penned the classic Case of Charles Dexter Ward, which had a man researching his own ancestor with far darker results.
What went through the mind of the great writer when Standish found himself mysteriously transported to Lovecraft’s yearned-for eighteenth century? We know something of his feelings, of course, through his correspondence:
“It is the most weirdly perfect embodiment of my own moods and pseudo-memories that I have ever seen – for all my life I have felt as if I might wake up out of this dream of an idiotic Victorian age and insane jazz age into the reality of 1760 or 1770 or 1780…the age of the white steeples and fan-lighted doorways of the ancient hill, and of the long-s’d books of the old dark attic trunk-room at 454 Angell St. God save the King!”
“My own moods and pseudo-memories…”
In April of 1927, shortly after completing Charles Dexter Ward, Lovecraft was waxing lyrical in a letter to Donald Wandrei:
“…when I think 1725 I want to be able to see 1725; & to do that, I must know clearly what types of building were then surviving, & what types were then being built. Once I roughly block out my scene –knowing just what to include & what to eliminate – I can drape it in as much mist & mysticism as I choose”.
I’m convinced that anyone who had such a powerful imagination combined with an all-encompassing love for another time must have at least once entertained thoughts of having lived before – even as just a passing fancy. After all, mechanistic materialism is a harsh belief system that offers nothing in the way of hope beyond this one flat existence. Surely, someone who watched Berkely Square four times over a short period must have in a moment of idleness entertained at least the notion.
In that same letter he adds:
“All that I live for is to recapture some fragment of this hidden & just unreachable beauty; this beauty which is all of dream, yet which I feel I have known closely & rebelled in through long eons before my birth or the birth of the world. There is somewhere, my fancy fabulises, a marvelous city of ancient streets & hills & gardens & marble terraces, wherein I once lived happy eternities & to which I must return if ever I am content.”
I don’t think that any Lovecraft admirer can fail to have had images of a Silver Key whilst reading that.
Well, these are just a few whimsical thoughts on something that can’t be known. However, Lovecraft has given me nearly forty-five years of reading pleasure. It would make me happy to think that as he lay dying in that hospital bed in 1937, the combination of that gigantic intellect, fancy and painkillers may have granted him at least the illusion of returning to his beloved eighteenth century.
For what he left behind to us, he had earned that much.
*Berkely Square’s screenplay was by Sonja Lerien and John L. Balderston and based on the latter’s 1927 play, which was in turn inspired by Henry James’s uncompleted novel The Sense of the Past. Restored in the 1970s, it was shown at the 2011 H. P. Lovecraft Film Festival.