Wednesday, August 13, 2014

A Lovecraftian Vision of the Afterlife

[“At this point the text becomes illegible.”]

—is how The Green Meadow finishes.  Some readers will be disappointed by the inconclusive end to a rather vaporous short story.  What actually happened anyway?  Yet Lovecraft enthusiasts may find it a fascinating text to peruse.  This was one of the “primary revisions”, collaborations in which H.P. Lovecraft wrote or substantially rewrote the germ of an idea supplied by a lesser light.  In this instance he collaborated with Winifred Virginia Jackson, and both took pseudonyms: the story was published as “Translated by Elizabeth Neville Berkeley and Lewis Theobald, Jun.”  The Green Meadow is one of Lovecraft’s earlier works, probably written in 1918 or 1919, and originally appearing in an amateur “manuscript magazine” called Hesperia in 1921.  (It later appeared in The Vagrant in 1927.) 

Recall that several of H.P. Lovecraft’s earliest stories were published at this time:  The Alchemist (1916), A Reminiscence of Dr. Samuel Johnson (1917), The Beast in the Cave (1918), Dagon (1919), The Statement of Randolph Carter (1920) The Doom That Came to Sarnath (1920), and The Cats of Ulthar (1920).  Lovecraft’s career was just beginning when he produced The Green Meadow.  Like the other stories from this time period, it is interesting because of the way in which it prefigures ideas that he would develop later on in his better known work.  

According to S.T. Joshi, The Green Meadow was inspired in part by a dream of Jackson’s, a dream that was very similar to one of Lovecraft’s, though much more elaborate.  The first paragraph of the story (“It was a narrow place, and I was alone…”) was based on Lovecraft’s dream, with the remainder an elaboration of similar material from Jackson.  Lovecraft concocted a more realistic sounding preamble for the very beginning.  This “introductory note” tells of a meteorite that is found to contain a manuscript written in classical Greek, made of some unknown substance.  Berkeley and Theobald presumably translate this text, “in the hope that some reader may eventually hit upon an interpretation and solve one of the greatest scientific mysteries of recent years.”

Most of The Green Meadow is basically an elaborated dream journal entry, oddly devoid of concrete names or details, even about the genderless, unnamed narrator.  The story feels weirdly empty, as some dreams do. The tone is one of loneliness and unfocused anxiety.  Joshi cites a letter in which Lovecraft later explained that the manuscript was the “narrative of an ancient Greek philosopher who had escaped from earth and landed on some other planet”.  But this would be quite a stretch given how little detail is provided the reader.  And yet, one can clearly visualize the setting, however vaporous and undefined, because it is simple: forest, shore, water, sky, and a mysterious little island, barely in view.

In the dream the narrator is standing on the shore of a misty sea, a menacing forest at his back.  Suddenly the bit of land he is standing on breaks away and drifts slowly out to sea.  Eventually it approaches the titular Green Meadow, in which the narrator finds a sense of security and longing as he gazes upon it from afar.  It seems to be an island of safety, but as he approaches it, he hears chanting, and voices that stir up vague memories and fears.  Typical of many later Lovecraft stories, the narrator is quite passive, drifting along, observing, feeling increasingly afraid, but taking no action.    In close proximity to the Green Meadow, he finally sees “the source of the chanting, and in one horrible instant remembered everything.”  Alas, just at this point, “the text becomes illegible.”

Joshi called The Green Meadow “a pretty sorry excuse for a story”, and criticized its lack of detailed description and plot.  However, readers familiar with Lovecraft’s later work can probably see in The Green Meadow the basic framework for many of his later stories.  Something indistinct is gradually brought into view, its full reality sparking a devastating recollection of something previously known.  That there is chanting present in this revelation connects the story to all the subsequent ones in which Lovecraft seems preoccupied with primal religious practices.

There is more to this story.  While the narrator is drifting ever closer to the Green Meadow, he makes statements that are quite remarkable for an avowed materialist and atheist such as Lovecraft:

“I recalled things I had learned, things I had dreamed, things I had imagined and yearned for in some other distant life.  I thought of long nights when I had gazed up at the stars of heaven and cursed the gods that my free soul could not traverse the vast abysses which were inaccessible to my body.”

“Bits of sod continued to break away from the tiny tract which carried me, but I heeded not their loss; for I felt that I was not to die with the body (or appearance of a body) which I seemed to possess.  That everything about me, even life and death, was illusory; that I had overleaped the bounds of mortality and corporeal entity, becoming a free, detached thing; impressed me as almost certain.”

“…I knew now the change through which I passed, through which certain others who once were men had passed!  And I knew the endless cycle of the future which none like me may escape…I shall live forever, be conscious forever, though my soul cries out to the gods for the boon of death and oblivion…”

H.P. Lovecraft would later officially repudiate notions like these and opt for a more thorough going materialism and atheism.  Admittedly, he made these fictional remarks early in his career and modified his views and sensibilities as he grew older, as we all do.  However, it is also clear that an echo of this religious supernaturalism can be heard in many of his later works, well into the late 1930s, near the end of his career. An example that comes to mind is his masterful The Case of Charles Dexter Ward (1941).

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