Wednesday, October 16, 2013

One of Lovecraft’s ‘False Starts’

H.P. Lovecraft’s The Descendant was published a year after his death, but may have been written as early as 1927, judging by some of the references he makes in the text.  It is not a complete story, but more likely the first few pages of a draft.  S.T. Joshi dismisses The Descendant as a ‘false start’, saying that “it is just as well that Lovecraft abandoned it after a few pages.”  This may be unfair, since it is not known how the final product might have turned out after revision and publication.  It was just a beginning.

Joshi pinpoints the likely year of its composition based on one of Lovecraft’s letters that he wrote in April of 1927.  In the letter, Lovecraft describes the research he is doing to become familiar with the history, topography and atmosphere of London during a certain time period; this is the setting of The DescendantThere is also a reference in the story to Charles Fort, a famous occultist and expert on supernatural phenomena in the early 20th century.

Fort published his The Book of the Damned in 1919.  By ‘damned’ he did not mean condemned to hell. Fort writes these words in the introduction to his book:  “A procession of the damned.  By the damned, I mean the excluded.  We shall have a procession of data that science has excluded…The power that has said to all these things that they are damned, is Dogmatic Science.”  According to S.T. Joshi, Lovecraft was familiar with Charles Fort, and borrowed The Book Of the Damned from his colleague Donald Wandrei in the spring of 1927.

There is a reference to Charles Fort also in George Allan England’s The Thing From Outside (1923), which was discussed in an earlier post, (August 2013, “Cosmic Ants”).  In that story, the author cites The Book of the Damned as an authoritative source regarding extra-terrestrial involvement in earth’s early history.  Fort’s work remains influential even today.  From his surname we obtain the adjective fortean, (“of, relating to, or denoting paranormal phenomena”).  His various publications created the foundation for international associations devoted to his ideas, and later on, an interesting journal, The Fortean Times. ( )

As Lovecraft stories go, The Descendant begins auspiciously, that is inauspiciously, with these words:  “Writing on what my doctor tells me is my deathbed, my most hideous fear is that the man is wrong.”  With an opening like that, clearly the author had more to offer in the way of an explanation.  The next few pages contain familiar Lovecraftian elements. 

There is an ancient hereditary castle in England that may be built on top of ancient Roman ruins—as was Exham Priory, in The Rats in the Walls, (1924).  A Necronomicon is purchased from a squalid commercial establishment owned and operated by an old [politically incorrect appellation].  A young man befriends an older gentleman with a dark, secret knowledge—as in Cool Air (1928).  Which knowledge may have to do with an hereditary horror passed down through many generations. 

The Descendant even contains an explicit reference to another of Lovecraft’s stories: The Nameless City, (1921).  In fact, it is tempting to wonder if Lovecraft intended the mysterious old gentleman in The Descendant to be an older version of the character who explored the strange ruins in “the desert of Araby.”

The story was never completed, so it will never be known what Lovecraft’s plans were for it, if indeed he had any.  The Descendant is only a few pages long, a fragment.  It is interesting—to me, at least—to compare it to a much later work by another author, Thomas Ligotti, who wrote a wonderful homage to Lovecraft called Nethescurial.  This story is in Ligotti’s collection The Shadow at the Bottom of the World, (2005).  Both stories contain archaeologists, (“Lord Northham” in Lovecraft’s story, and “Dr. N-” in Ligotti’s), and the surname ‘Gray’—I realize I am grasping at straws here.   Both contain the powerful image of characters attempting to destroy the evil contained in the written pages of a manuscript by burning them.  This is nearly always unsuccessful.

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