Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Time in a Bottle

As with most of his collaborations with other authors, Two Black Bottles (1927) is interesting mainly because of Lovecraft’s influence and how the story relates to the author’s other work.  It is better than many of his joint efforts, though not nearly as good as The Mound (1930) or The Horror in the Museum (1932), both with Zealia Bishop.  Two Black Bottles is a “secondary” revision according to Joshi’s classification; he describes this work as one “in which Lovecraft merely touched up—albeit sometimes extensively—a preexisting draft.”

Two Black Bottles was written by Wilfrid Branch Talman, who sent the draft to Lovecraft for editing.  Lovecraft met Talman during his brief stay in New York City, when the younger man was in his early twenties.  Talman had earlier sent him a booklet of his poetry to review, and later on sent him this tale of necromancy and vengeance from the grave.  The text is mostly devoid of the lengthy, adjective-laden sentences favored by Lovecraft, and the plot moves along relatively swiftly. 

The most identifiable contribution from Lovecraft are the passages of dialogue—which are awful.  The setting of the story is northern New Jersey, but the principle characters speak in a stilted pseudo-Appalachian dialect that is quite out of place, (“Curse ye, ye rascal…I’m done fer!”).  In various stories Lovecraft seems to assume that people in rural areas all sound alike, no matter what region of the country they live in.  He never mastered the art of rendering human conversation in his fiction, and does not appear to have had an ear for everyday spoken language.  His revision of Talman’s original dialogue weakens the overall quality of Two Black Bottles, such as it is.

According to S.T. Joshi, Talman worked as a New York Times reporter for a time, and was also an editor for the Texaco Oil Company newspaper and other trade papers.  He occasionally dabbled in fiction writing.  He and Lovecraft shared an interest in local history and genealogy. Talman was especially interested in his Dutch ancestry and was active in the Holland Society of New York.  This is reflected in the gloomy setting of Two Black Bottles, which is the dwindling village of Daalbergen, originally founded by Dutch settlers.

Lovecraft had a number of interesting relationships with younger men, of which Talman was one.  Others include Robert H. Barlow, Frank B. Long, Alfred Galpin, and Samuel Loveman.  It does not seem too much of stretch to see a literary transmutation of these friendships into such Lovecraftian “bro-mances” as Beyond the Wall of Sleep (1919), The Tree (1921), Hypnos (1923), The Quest of Iranon (1935), and The Thing on the Doorstep (1937).  In my view at least, reading these stories as a group and seeing their interrelated themes and imagery provides insight into Lovecraft’s personality and the nature of his relationships with others.

Though Lovecraft thought positively of the younger man, Talman was somewhat critical of Lovecraft in return.  Recalling his assistance on Two Black Bottles, Talman disliked how Lovecraft had modified the dialogue and made it more colloquial in tone.  Near the end of Lovecraft’s career, Talman tried unsuccessfully to help Lovecraft produce new fiction along with his extensive travelogue material, acting as an amateur agent.  Another “what if”:  Lovecraft appeared to have considerable potential as a travel writer, but did not develop or market it.

Talman was one of the few who left a description of H.P. Lovecraft’s voice, as well as the author’s behavior when laughing.  S.T. Joshi quoted the following from Talman in his two volume biography of Lovecraft:

His voice had that flat and slightly nasal quality that is sometimes stereotyped as a New England characteristic.  When he laughed aloud, a harsh cackle emerged that reversed the impression of his smile and to the uninitiated might be considered a ham actor’s version of a hermit’s laughter.  Companions avoided any attempt to achieve more than a smile in conversation, so unbecoming was the result.

Others described his conversational voice as “somewhat falsetto”, (Sonia Greene) or “piping-voiced” (Hart Crane).  L. Sprague De Camp reports Talman’s insistence that he could not recall Lovecraft ever making an anti-Semitic remark either verbally or in writing.  “Nor do I remember anything he ever said knowingly to wound a listener.”  It seems that Lovecraft was able to modulate his views about race and ethnicity, or at least their expression, in some settings.

In Two Black Bottles, the narrator is summoned to the dreary village of Daalbergen to attend to his late uncle’s estate.  Daalbergen is Talman’s version of Innsmouth, which also contains a decrepit and desecrated old church.  The narrator’s uncle was the last pastor of this church, and according to the villagers, came under the influence of an evil old sexton, (who is actually 200 years old).  This is a familiar trope in horror fiction, that of a demonic groundskeeper whose evil is in direct contrast to the hallowed ground and edifice where he works.  There is an echo of this in Robert W. Chambers classic The Yellow Sign (1902).

The narrator confronts the old wizard in a ruined belfry, surrounded by “old and dusty books and manuscripts—strange things that bespoke almost unbelievable age…on rows of shelves which reached to the ceiling were horrible things in glass jars and bottles…”  The narrator discovers that his uncle’s predecessor was the notorious Dominie Slott, a clergyman devoted to occult arts.  The sexton has continued his master’s work, of which the narrator’s uncle was the most recent victim. On a table are two mysterious bottles containing spirits—not of the liquid variety.  Regrettably, one of the bottles is broken in the struggle, possibly the wrong one. 

Two Black Bottles contains some conventionally spooky imagery, but the most memorable and haunting aspect is the unresolved ending.  Had the author included just a bit more humanizing detail about the doomed uncle, readers would care more about his fate.  This story may be interesting to enthusiastic readers of Lovecraft for some of the imagery that recurs in a number of his better stories.  For example, the narrator’s fumbling around in the dark of the old church and later scaling the stairway to the belfry recalls The Haunter of the Dark (1936), and the imprisonment of souls in bottles reminds one of the old wizard’s paraphernalia in The Terrible Old Man (1921).  Necromancy is developed much more thoroughly in Lovecraft’s ambitious later work, The Case of Charles Dexter Ward (1941).


 “…in the centre of the town, where perched a great white church…and it had made me shiver because Aldebaran had seemed to balance itself a moment on the ghostly spire.”

—from The Festival (1925), by H.P. Lovecraft

Happy Holidays from The R’lyeh Tribune!


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