Although it shows up in anthologies, The Evil Clergyman (1939) was not originally a story intended for publication, though it might eventually have become one. It was Lovecraft’s description of a dream which he included in a letter to a friend. As a story, it was published two years after his death. In some respects it is an example of the raw material from which Lovecraft might have fashioned a story. It is fascinating in either case.
In The Evil Clergyman, the narrator is led up into an attic chamber by an older gentleman. He is left alone there, and surveys the mysterious old room. In my view at least, Lovecraft stories that involve an ascent are qualitatively different from the more typical stories that involve a descent to some terrible discovery. A Lovecraft character is not typically found in an attic—it is usually the basement or someplace even lower. It seems that an ascent points toward some kind of solution to a problem, especially if support and guidance is provided by an older man. (See The Silver Key.)
Evidently the previous occupant of the room was feared and distrusted by his peers. The narrator is curious—“Your curiosity makes you irresponsible,” the older man warns him. He finds books about theology, classics, and magic. He also finds a small box like object that he activates with a special kind of flashlight that emits “a hail of small violet particles”. He happens to have one in his pocket. He initially confuses it with a regular flashlight in another pocket. (The confusion of duplicated items is not uncommon in dreams.) Lovecraft’s description of the operation of this device seems like an echo of the extensive research that was going on at the time leading to the development of television. The mention of the device is arrestingly out of place, and gives a sci-fi feel to the story.
An image forms and then becomes a life sized figure in the room. The narrator’s description of the newcomer is eerily like that of Lovecraft himself. The stranger is dressed as an Anglican clergyman. He commences burning all of his books. Suddenly his peers, led by the bishop, appear in the room. The stranger wards them off by reaching for the strange device. They are evidently very frightened by him and his device. When they have gone, he obtains some rope from a nearby cupboard, and prepares to hang himself. The narrator intervenes to save him.
The stranger then approaches the narrator menacingly. The narrator aims his special flashlight at the ‘evil clergyman’, and this causes him to stagger backwards and fall down the stairwell. He vanishes, but the narrator is rejoined by the bishop. The bishop informs him that, because of his interaction with the stranger, a transformation has occurred. He is taken to a mirror, and sure enough, although he feels he is the same inside as always, he now has the outward appearance of the Anglican priest. “For all the rest of my life, in outward form, I was to be that man!”
One can read too much into this and over interpret the data. Sometimes dreams are just dreams, although Lovecraft thought that the vision was significant enough to include in a letter to his friend. It is never clear just why the clergyman should be considered evil by his peers, or by the narrator. Did he simply read the wrong books or hold the wrong views? His willingness to burn the books at the end seems to indicate some sort of recanting or repentance. But why did an atheist like Lovecraft not only dream about an Anglican priest, but actually become one at the end of the dream?