Mysteries of Time and Spirit
The Letters of H. P. Lovecraft
and Donald Wandrei
Edited by S. T. Joshi
and David E. Schultz
Night Shade Books
Anyone who only knows Howard Phillips Lovecraft through his short stories and two novellas must be almost overwhelmed when they try to comprehend the sheer scale of his correspondence. Shortly after the appearance of the volume at hand, S. T. Joshi wrote in his essay A Look at Lovecraft’s Letters:
“How many letters did Lovecraft write? The exact number has been hotly debated and of course can never be truly ascertained. The figure of 100,000 arrived at (probably by sheer speculation) by L. Sprague de Camp seems a bit high. [Personally, I accompany with a very large pinch of salt almost anything that de Camp comes out with – CB.] Lovecraft variously gave his daily output of letters at anywhere between 5 and 15; if we assume a middle ground of 8 or 10, we reach some 3500 letters a year; over a twenty-five year period (1912 – 37) we already reach 87,500 at what is probably a conservative estimate. Of these, it is my belief that no more than 10,000 now survive.”
To the modern reader used to email and texting – not that I’m saying that’s a good thing –, to spend this amount of time and energy on writing daily letters is appalling; and take into account that many of HPL’s letters would be 30 or 40 pages long! In one instance some poor sod opened the door to the postman only to be handed a 70-page missive. Seriously, you don’t want to be rude but how the hell do you answer that without taking a week off work?
Joshi points out that to publish all of the surviving correspondence in 400-page volumes will take around 100 volumes. Of course I reconciled myself years ago to the reality that I would never see that in my lifetime. However, we have a surprisingly large amount of letters already available in book form and I think that the average Lovecraftian scholar would agree that they are worth more than some of the weaker short stories and fully half of his often execrable poetry.
The Wandrei Initiative
I first read this superb collection around a decade ago. I enjoyed it then but can honestly say that I got even more out of it this time around. Mind you, at the time I wondered why they had started with the Lovecraft – Wandrei correspondence. Why not the earlier New York ones, or the letters to Alfred Galpin? In fact, the choice makes perfect sense as these are lighter than the heavily philosophical exchanges with Galpin and there is as near to a complete a set on both sides as you can reasonably ask for.
Donald Wandrei of St. Paul, Minnesota (1908 – 1987) made his initial overture to HPL in December of 1926 whilst still in his teens. Lovecraft wrote back immediately and thus began a correspondence that would last the remainder of his life. He could have no idea that Wandrei would in fact go on to be, in the company of August Derleth, one of the main players in keeping his memory alive and to ultimately cause his work to appear between hard covers through the founding of Arkham House.
The sheer eloquence and good old-fashioned politeness with which this young man writes makes me dislike even more intensely than I already do, many of the crude young toerags of this generation. “Let me express again my pleasure at the loan of the manuscripts and books and Loveman’s poems” he writes in an early exchange, “and let me thank you most profoundly and gratefully for them.” Today you would be lucky to get them back in one piece.
Mind you, in the letter that he’s replying it’s a miracle that Lovecraft hadn’t poisoned him for life. Wandrei had expressed an interest in visiting New York, which of course was like waving a red rag in front of HPL:
“New York is dead, & the brilliancy which so impresses one from outside is the phosphorescence of a maggoty corpse. There can be no normal American life or thought in a town full of twisted ratlike vermin from the ghetto & steerage of yesterday – a town where for block on block one can walk without seeing a single face which has any relation to the life & growth of the Nordic, Anglo-American stream of civilization. It is not America – it is not even Europe – it is Asia & chaos & hell – the sort of stinking, amorphous hybridism which Juvenal noted in Rome when…”
Oh come on, Howard; say what you mean! Wandrei described the rant –one of many to come — rather charmingly as a ‘corrosive sublimate’. That’s one way of putting it.
Fortunately it never put Wandrei off and in the summer of 1927 he made his northward trek, stopping at various locales before joining Lovecraft in Providence, Rhode Island. He sends postcards as do all of the interlinked correspondents as they travel; and again the modern mind is bemused by this flurry of postcard-writing – sometimes two a day. Then we have to remember how ubiquitous Facebook entries of pointless boring photographs are, or of the many needless emails we send each day and reflect that this is simply the ‘20s equivalent.
Wandrei’s hitch hiking saga is fascinating, unwinding like something out of a depression era movie as he picks up lifts and cadges overnight stays in empty police cells. Long-gone days!
The Lovecraft Retiscence
One of the many fascinating things that come across in the correspondence is that never once does Lovecraft indicate that he was ever married; not even when it would have been quite pertinent to the conversation. It really is extraordinary. In fact, one wonders did he even bring up the subject when they met in the flesh.
There is an odd moment, too, in a 1927 letter from HPL when we realise that these people took an actual interest in environmental matters, something that for some reason I never thought of:
“Odours at certain hours around the Great Bridge are not at all inviting, & the water has an oily, iridescent cast which has more than once moved me to weird reflections. There is not, however, anything dangerous or unsanitary in this pollution, & aside from its aesthetic drawbacks is harmful only in its destruction of the once-famous oyster beds of the upper bay. In that bay itself a new pollution has gradually crept – in the form of crude oil, since Providence is the greatest oil storage & distributing centre in the East.”
There is also evidence of Lovecraft’s kindly encouragement to a young admirer – not to mention a certain pathos – in this letter:
“Imaginative minds are prone to one-sided development, & a standard curriculum holds one willy-nilly to a balanced perspective & normal orientation which one might not voluntarily acquire. I really regret that ill health kept me from attending college – the influence would have made me less of a freakish recluse than I am & would have given me a contact with the world whereby my work might display a far richer background of realism than it does. Don’t regret your university years. You are the better for them, & even as it is you are emerging from them far earlier than most youths succeed in doing.”
Of course, the main thing that aficionados will be after is the opinions of the men on the weird fiction of their day; and there is no shortage of that on either side as both are equally enthusiastic about their passion.
The bulk of the correspondence took place in the year 1927, in a very rapid exchange of views, but continued for the rest of Lovecraft’s life. A late one is the precious letter from HPL on June 24th, 1936:
“[A tragic] blow has just hit weird fictiondom in a very vital spot – a disaster which I can hardly bring myself to believe… [It is] nothing less than the announcement that Robert E. Howard…good old Two-Gun Bob…has committed suicide.”
Across the span of almost eighty years we can feel the reverberations that went through the readers of weird fiction at the unthinkable loss of one of the true giants of the field.
And finally there is the last letter by Donald Wandrei – the first to his old friend in three months and which is dated March 17th, 1937 – two days after Lovecraft’s death.
For anyone interested in the dying art of letter-writing this will make interesting reading; but for the Lovecraft enthusiast it is absolutely essential.