Saturday, February 21, 2015

Lovecraft as Shudder Pulp Writer: The Diary of "Mad Dan"

What if Lovecraft had explored other pulp genres besides horror and the supernatural, as Robert E. Howard and other colleagues had done?  What if he had attemped the kind of shudder pulp stories that Hugh B. Cave was notorious for?  It seems that he did, and an example of this can be found in his preposterous collaboration with Hazel Heald, The Man of Stone (1932).

Coincidently, both Lovecraft and Cave lived in Rhode Island; Lovecraft in Providence and Cave in nearby Pawtuxet.  They never met in person, but did occasionally correspond.  The two differed greatly in work habits, style and degree of success.  It is interesting to compare a story by Lovecraft with one by Cave with respect to pacing, subject matter and characterization, among other parameters. 

Though they disagreed about the professionalism of writing for pulp magazines, The Man of Stone is not very different from the “weird menace” stories of Hugh B. Cave, (especially the second half of the story).  Perhaps by the early 1930s, a cash strapped Lovecraft felt the need to dabble in shudder pulp fiction to locate additional markets for his work.

In The Shudder Pulps: A History of the Weird Menace Magazines of the 1930s (1975) Robert Kenneth Jones describes this subgenre as one preoccupied with supernatural and terrifying events which later turn out to have a naturalistic explanation.  Such stories often featured a monster or some other horror that is eventually explained as the result of some exaggerated biological process. There is frequently a madman or diabolical villain, who may be a slighted family member or lover.  Finally, shudder pulp writers added “spiciness” to their tales by including a woman who is threatened or abused by a malefactor.

The Man of Stone contains all of these elements.  It begins as a typical Lovecraftian bromance.  Jack, who is the narrator, accompanies his close friend Ben Hayden as he investigates strange happenings in New York State.  Hayden is stubborn and impetuous, “and once he had heard about those strange statues in the upper Adirondacks, nothing could keep him from going to see them.”  Their friendship recalls that of Randolph Carter and Harley Warren in The Statement of Randolph Carter (1920): “Warren always dominated me, and sometimes I feared him.”  (See also 1. What Happened to Randolph?.)

In The Man of Stone, Jack goes on to say that he was Ben’s closest friend for years, “and our Damon and Pythias friendship made us inseparable at times.”  This is a reference to an ancient Greek legend, probably more obscure today than it was in Lovecraft’s time.  The story of Damon and Pythias exemplifies male friendship and devotion; Damon is so steadfast that he is willing to sacrifice his life for Pythias.  This devotion so impresses their captors that they are freed at the end of the story to resume their adventures. 

The allusion to ‘Damon and Pythias’ occurs in various literary works over time as metaphor for male bonding.  Lovecraft’s The Tree (1921) is also a reflection of Lovecraft’s interest in the ancient Greek conceptualization of male friendship.  (See also Under the Olive Tree.) In the context of The Man of Stone, it is an odd reference.  Neither Jack nor Ben endure any self-sacrifice for the other, and are primarily observers at the scene of a crime.  In fact, they disappear entirely from the story when attention shifts to passages in the diary of the villain.  The phrase ‘Damon and Pythias’ serves mainly as code describing their close male friendship.  

Which is the only relationship possible between characters in H.P. Lovecraft’s fiction.  Women are conspicuously absent, if not banned.  In the very few instances where women do appear, their femininity is well concealed behind monstrosity and malevolence.  In The Thing on the Doorstep (1937)—tellingly one of Lovecraft’s last stories—Asenath Derby is merely a shell occupied by the spirit of her evil wizard father, and later on by her impotent husband.  In The Dreams in the Witch-House, (1933) an asexual ogress sacrifices infants to the Old Ones.  It cannot be accidental that women receive such treatment in Lovecraft’s work and that male companionship is depicted as the ideal.  (See also ‘Bromantic’ Relationships in Lovecraft.)

However, in The Man of Stone, a young woman is depicted much more sympathetically—she is merely dead and calcified as the story begins.  Jack and Ben arrive at a remote location in the Adirondacks, where they soon discover several petrified corpses, one of which is that of the villain.  He is named “Mad Dan”, perhaps to assist less astute readers.  The other bodies belong to Mad Dan’s wife Rose, and Arthur Wheeler, a sculptor.  Jack and Ben soon find Mad Dan’s journal and are able to unravel the mystery.  The last half of the story is told in diary entries.   

In the journal account, Rose became a model for Wheeler’s work, and the two spent a lot of time together.  Suspecting the worst, Mad Dan concocted a potion that turns people instantly to stone.  The recipe for the potion is conveniently derived from the Book of Eibon, and there is some backstory about Mad Dan being a descendent of a long line of occultists and necromancers.  The mish mash of Cthulhu Mythos terminology with weird biochemistry marks this effort as a transitional work, a halfway point between weird fiction and what we might recognize as science fiction.
At one point, Mad Dan locks Rose in the attic and attempts to get her to drink the potion, (Wheeler had already been tricked into imbibing the evil drink, quickly becoming much like his statuary, though exhibiting much greater detail.)  Here are two passages from Mad Dan’s diary, after he “took a whip to her and drove her up in the attic”:

“March 9—It’s damn peculiar how slow that stuff is in getting hold of Rose.  I’ll have to make it stronger—probably she’ll never taste it with all the salt I’ve been feeding her.  Well, if it doesn’t get her there are plenty of other ways to fall back on.  But I would like to carry this neat statue plan through!..I sometimes hear Rose’s steps on the ceiling overhead, and I think they’re getting more and more dragging.  The stuff is certainly working, but it’s too slow.  Not strong enough.  From now on I’ll rapidly stiffen the dose.”

“March 11—It is very queer.  She is alive and moving.  Tuesday night I heard her piggling with a window, so went up and gave her a rawhiding.  She acts more sullen than frightened, and her eyes look swollen.  But she could never drop to the ground from that height, and there’s nowhere she could climb down…Sometimes I think she works at the lock on the door.”

Oh, my. 

Lovecraft was a fan of Friedrich Nietzsche, whom S.T. Joshi identifies as an important influence on the author’s philosophy and world view.  But the most obvious influence here is Nietzsche’s infamous aphorism about relationships with women:  “Thou goest to women?  Do not forget thy whip!” and perhaps also “In revenge and in love, woman is more barbarous than man.”

Incredibly, the journal begins with the villain’s gleeful and deranged contributions, but finishes with a lengthy statement written by his would be victim Rose, who has contrived to vanquish her madly jealous husband using his own device.  She then commits suicide herself.  (Which also seems vaguely like something out of Greek tragedy.)

Though an actual person, Lovecraft’s collaborator Hazel Heald might as well have been a pseudonym.  This is probably the case for many of the joint efforts considered to be Lovecraft’s “primary revisions” of work by others.  S.T. Joshi believes that all five of the stories Lovecraft revised for Heald “were based on mere synopses and were written by Lovecraft almost entirely on his own.” 

Joshi feels that the weaknesses in The Man of Stone are a result of Lovecraft being constrained by a scenario he would never have chosen for one of his own stories.  This seems generous.  In my view, Lovecraft’s various collaborations suggest an effort to expand beyond his typical material, experiment with edgier subjects, and develop new markets while under financial duress. 

The majority of these primary revisions were completed in the late 1920s through the middle 1930s—an economically difficult time for pulp writers.  Not only did Lovecraft struggle unsuccessfully to adapt to the growing taste for science fiction and “spicy horror”, he apparently concealed some of these efforts as revisions that were published by less gifted writers.

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