Saturday, October 4, 2014

With Theobald, At the Apocalypse

Early in his career, H.P. Lovecraft wrote three prose poems in close succession that are similar in theme and imagery.  They are The Green Meadow (1919), Nyarlathotep (1920), and The Crawling Chaos (1921).  The first and second were discussed in earlier posts, (see A Lovecraftian Vision of the Afterlife and Some Recommended Graphics). All three are about the end of the world, and are remarkable for their religious content, given Lovecraft’s supposedly materialist world view.  What was happening in the author’s life at that time which led to such a preoccupation with apocalyptic visions? 

Though one can make too much of biographical details and their impact on an author’s work, it is noteworthy that his mother’s mental health markedly declined at this time. Her hysteria and depression had increased significantly towards the end of the First World War.  She was hospitalized in 1919, at the same facility where Lovecraft’s father died, and passed away in 1921.  The loss of his mother was devastating, despite his ambivalence about the role she had played in his own emotional difficulties. In some sense the familial world he had known had come to an end, though he strove to replace his mother with his maternal aunts, and not long after, with his unsuccessful marriage to Sonia Greene.        

These three early works by Lovecraft, two of them collaborations, all began as recorded dream material that was later partially transformed into something resembling a narrative.  None of them really rise to the level of story, being absent of conflict, characterization or plot.  They read like elaborate dream journal entries, yet are effective as prose poems.  Interestingly, erosion by turbulent water, and the ever present threat of drowning, (or being overwhelmed, as in Nyarlathotep), is a common image in them.  In darker, more despairing moments of his life, Lovecraft’s suicidal ideation usually involved death by drowning.  Typical of much of his fiction, the narrator in each piece is a passive and impotent observer of his and the world’s fate.    

All three are apocalyptic in nature, with different perspectives on ‘the end’.  In The Green Meadow, the dreamer seeks a personal salvation on what appears to be an attractive island in a turbulent stream.  Instead, he finds an eternity of terrifying primordial religious ritual, and realizes that he will never return to the mainland—that is, he has died.  Nyarlathotep describes the collapse of both Western civilization and individual sanity at the hands of an Antichrist: “And it was then that Nyarlathotep came out of Egypt…”  Finally, The Crawling Chaos depicts the dramatic end of the physical earth, but—amazingly for Lovecraft—includes the appearance of angels and a version of the holy family.  Certainly the end of the world was on Lovecraft’s mind circa the early 1920s, and perhaps the faint hope of some sort of religious deliverance.

The Crawling Chaos (1921) was written by Lewis Theobald, Jr. and Elizabeth Neville Berkeley, pseudonyms for H.P. Lovecraft and Winifred Virginia Jackson.  Lovecraft and Johnson had also collaborated on the earlier story, The Green Meadow.  According to L. Sprague de Camp, Jackson had no talent for writing in Lovecraft’s view, though she may have been a superior poet.  She supplied him with dream imagery which he then elaborated into prose poems.  

S.T. Joshi notes that even the title links this piece to the opening lines of Nyarlathotep: “Nyarlathotep…the crawling chaos...I am the last…I will tell the audient void…”  The cadence of this pronouncement also sounds very similar to the closing lines of The Green Meadow: “The Green Meadow…I will send a message across the horrible immeasurable abyss…”  It seems likely that these three stories form a thematic trilogy.

The dream-like events of The Crawling Chaos are precipitated by an overdose of opium.  Use of mind altering substances appears surprisingly often in early 20th century horror, science fiction and fantasy.  For example, mind altering substances are used or referenced in Clark Ashton Smith’s Ubbo-Sathla (1933) and Beyond the Singing Flame (1931), as well as Frank Belknap Long’s The Hounds of Tindalos (1929), among others. 

In these stories, the effect of the substance is to take its user back in time to the primordial chaos, where a soul shattering revelation awaits.  In The Crawling Chaos, an opiate vision takes the narrator far into the future, to observe the last day of planet Earth.  True to his prudish, abstinent nature, Lovecraft’s character does not actively seek inebriation; he is the passive victim of a physician’s inattentiveness.  The overdose is accidental, intended as a treatment for plague symptoms, which also justify use of the drug.

The vision he experiences is initially similar in some ways to that in The Green Meadow.  He awakes in an ornate interior that suspiciously resembles the lavish rooms of Roderick Usher’s doomed residence, or perhaps the phantasmagoric bridal chamber in Ligeia. (In the latter the narrator is also under the influence of opium.)  Lovecraft’s dreamer may not be suffering from an opium overdose so much as from excessive consumption of Edgar Allan Poe.

Stepping outside, his worst fears are confirmed:  the narrow isthmus on which house sits is being relentlessly worn away by ocean waves.  Fleeing inland, he is strangely drawn to an enormous palm tree, under which he rests.  He is soon visited by a young child, who “bore the features of a faun or demigod” and who sports “an aureola of lambent light’ encircling his head. He hears sweet angelic singing, and is then joined by a “god and goddess”.  This is obviously a transmogrified version of the Holy Family, replete with minions of angelic creatures.  

All three beings want to take him “beyond the Arinurian streams” to “dwell blissfully in Teloe.”  Teloe is described as a Dunsanian-inspired heaven where “abide only youth, beauty, and pleasure, nor are any sounds heard, save of laughter, song, and the lute.”

Moreover, Teloe is up, where heaven is traditionally located.  The narrator and his new celestial acquaintances commence elevating in that direction—raptured, as it were, in the parlance of evangelical Christians—to the sounds of lute playing and an angelic choir.  Lovecraft, an avowed atheist, distances himself from this excruciating event by paganizing the attributes of the holy family and angels, and exchanging the usual harps for lutes.  

Heathen Baby Jesus warns the narrator not to look backward, but like Lot’s wife, he must gaze once more on the home he is leaving.  Salvation is aborted—he wakes from his opiate dream—but not before he sees the destruction of the earth, first by flood, and then by cosmic explosion.

S.T. Joshi describes The Crawling Chaos as “insubstantial”, and being an enthusiastic atheist himself, may have been dismayed by the overt religiosity of the piece.  This is uncharacteristic of Lovecraft, at least as he presented himself in his voluminous correspondence.  Yet this trilogy of prose poems, created during a very dark period in Lovecraft’s life, show the beginnings of a lifelong preoccupation with religious and supernatural ideas. These emerge later on in much of his subsequent fiction and poetry.

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