Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Insane on a Train

Throughout the course of his career, H.P. Lovecraft collaborated with a number of other authors of variable talent, for which he received modest compensation for his trouble.  There were about 24 of these collaborations, appearing from the beginning of the 1920s through the mid-1930s.  Results were mixed, although here and there Lovecraft and a collaborator were able to create memorable fiction.  One example is The Mound (1930), an imaginative and disturbing novelette that he wrote with Zealia Bishop.  However, the majority of these joint efforts are interesting primarily because of what they reveal of Lovecraft and his career as an author.

An example of the latter type of collaboration is The Electric Executioner.  According to S.T. Joshi, Lovecraft rewrote an earlier version of the story that had been published in an 1893 collection by Adolphe de Castro.  The story had originally been called The Automatic Executioner, and Lovecraft renamed it The Electric Executioner.  It was published in Weird Tales in 1930.  De Castro evidently had paid him in advance for this revision work, which created somewhat of an obligation for Lovecraft.  Joshi suggests that Lovecraft made the work more tolerable and less of a drudgery by adding some comic elements to the text.

That H.P. Lovecraft had a sense of humor may come as a surprise to some readers.  However, there are several examples of his wit in some of his lesser known stories.  These include A Reminiscence of Dr. Samuel Johnson (1917), and Ibid (1938), which is a personal favorite.  These are intentionally humorous pieces, but there are also droll remarks scattered throughout some of his more familiar work.  Almost certainly there are additional examples in his voluminous correspondence.  It is unfortunate that his sense of humor was not displayed more frequently in his work.  (See also 1. H.P. Lovecraft as Humorist and 2. ‘Shou’d My Present Recollections Meet With Fav... ).

The Electric Executioner is not as funny or entertaining as the two stories mentioned earlier—the plot is preposterous and the prose is very stilted.  It is nearly a parody of turgid literature, though unintentionally so.  This story may remind some readers of the annual Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest put on by the English Department at San Jose State University—an entertaining competition where participants submit deliberately awful opening lines to imaginary novels.  De Castro was such a terrible writer that he would probably have won such a contest effortlessly.  

An earlier collaboration with Lovecraft, The Last Test (1927) is equally atrocious and unintentionally funny.  (See also The Curse of ‘Chuckle-Head’)  Aspiring horror writers may want to look at both of these stories for examples of how not to write.  Here is one of my favorite passages:

“Even if I shot him once or twice he might have enough remaining strength to get the gun from me and deal with me in his own way; or if he were armed himself he might shoot or stab without trying to disarm me.  One can cow a sane man by covering him with a pistol, but an insane man’s complete indifference to consequences gives him a strength and menace quite superhuman for the time being.  Even in those pre-Freudian days I had a common-sense realization of the dangerous power of a person without normal inhibitions.” 

The narrator, who is a caricature of Lovecraft himself, is asked by his boss to track down a rogue employee who has absconded with important company papers.  He is wildly mismatched for this potentially dangerous assignment.  His nerves are constantly on edge and he is prone to fainting.  Like one of the co-authors, he has “…always been rather frail, and was then almost worn out with anxiety, sleeplessness and nervous tension.”  On a slow train to Mexico City he discovers that he is alone in his car with an eccentric and dangerously insane inventor.  The man has a contraption he has fashioned, a portable means of execution by electricity that he wants to try out on him.

“You’re the subject I’ve chosen, and you’ll thank me for the honour in the other world, just as the sacrificial victim thanks the priest for transferring him to eternal glory.”

The narrator tries to buy time by asking if he can write his last will and testament, offering to get the inventor some publicity, and finally asking if he might sketch the device while the inventor models it by slipping it over his head.  This is the most entertaining part of the story, the almost cartoon like manipulations of the narrator to delay use of the device until the train arrives at the station. 

After some mythos-like chanting of the names of some of the Old Ones, the inventor is simultaneously fried and teleported to a nearby cave, “full of hideous old Aztec idols and altars; the latter covered with the charred bones of recent burnt-offerings of doubtful nature.”  The reader at this point will no longer be expecting any of this to make sense.  Joshi mentions that there may have been a third Lovecraft-DeCastro collaboration, one that involved mention of Tsathoggua, but this story has mercifully never been found. 

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