Wednesday, May 27, 2015

What Was It?

The Horror at Martin’s Beach (1923) is unique among H.P. Lovecraft’s numerous collaborations; it was co-written with Sonia Greene, who would become his wife in 1924—though not for long.  When the story originally appeared, it was given the title The Invisible Monster. Although he does not get a byline, it was the first appearance of a work substantially by Lovecraft in Weird Tales, which began publication in March of 1923.

L. Sprague de Camp, in his 1975 biography of H.P. Lovecraft, relates how the idea for the story originated.  While visiting Sonia Green in a small Massachusetts resort town, the two went for a stroll along the shore on moonlit evening, and heard “a peculiar snorting, grunting noise, loud in the distance.”  Green suggested this might provide Lovecraft an idea for a story, but he encouraged her to write one instead.  Shortly afterwards, she produced an outline, which Lovecraft either revised or used to produce the complete story.  S.T. Joshi classifies the story as a “secondary revision” although Lovecraft’s influence is pretty obvious.

De Camp feels that The Horror at Martin’s Beach is similar in some respects to Ambrose Bierce’s The Damned Thing (1893) and Fitz-James O’Brien’s What Was It? (1859). These well-known classics both involve invisible entities, one a voracious predator and the other a mysterious humanoid, but the creature in the Green-Lovecraft effort is more concealed than invisible.  The marine setting and reference to the captured beast becoming exhibited as a seaside tourist attraction recalls another story, one very similar to J.G. Ballard’s 1964 The Drowned Giant, but appearing much earlier and possibly forming the basis for the Ballard story. 

(In the story I am remembering, villagers in a seaside town discover a giant male cadaver just offshore after a storm.  The novelty soon wears off and as the body decays the fisher folk begin to take away pieces of it for their own use, mutilating and desecrating the corpse.  However, the drowned giant’s mate comes to retrieve the body and drags it back to the ocean depths.  As in The Horror at Martin’s Beach, there is an element of revenge and justice for the desecration.  I have not been able to identify this story—it was probably published in the late nineteenth to very early twentieth century.  Do any of my readers know?)  

The beginning of The Horror at Martin’s Beach is very different in tone and conceptualization than the end.  The opening suggests that it will perhaps be a science fiction story:  a strange creature is captured at sea, and scientists attempt to classify it.  The organism has some similarities to more familiar marine animals and may be some kind of deep sea fish.  However, its enormous size and “certain curious modifications, such as rudimentary forelegs and six-toed feet in place of pectoral fins” as well as its highly developed brain and weird single eye indicate a more evolutionarily advanced species.  Adding to the mystery is the determination that the specimen is an infant, only recently hatched.  In short, the horror is a sea monster, or so readers are led to believe.

But the end of The Horror at Martin’s Beach is more akin to nightmare, and the story reads like the creative reworking of an item from the author’s dream journal.  It culminates in the single image of a dozen or so men unable to save themselves from being drawn out to sea and drowned—presumably by the parent of the infant sea monster.  A thunderstorm roars overhead as spectators on the beach, powerless to help, retreat indoors.

Held in the clutches of an unknown vise, the line of the damned dragged on; their silent screams and unuttered prayers known only to the demons of the black waves and the night wind.

The narrator imagines the victims in the throes of “all the fright, panic, and delirium of a malignant universe—all the sorrow, sin, and misery, blasted hopes and unfulfilled desires, fear, loathing and anguish of the ages since time’s beginning…” S.T. Joshi identifies the “typical verbal flamboyance” of these last few paragraphs as indicating that Lovecraft wrote them.  The story becomes strongly supernatural and even mythological in tone, no longer about a sea monster, but an apocalyptic vision of humankind’s fate.  Typical of Lovecraft’s fatalistic approach to life, victims and spectators passively accept their powerlessness over events, and merely watch, doing nothing to save the men or by extension, themselves.

Joshi was critical of the ending of The Horror at Martin’s Beach” because in his words “there has been insufficient build up for it” and “it is inappropriate to the circumstances,” [his emphasis].  Certainly the first half of the story seems awkwardly joined to what follows in the second.  Was the disjointedness of the text a result of Green’s and Lovecraft’s differing and irreconcilable contributions to the narrative?  Is The Horror at Martin’s Beach an example of Lovecraft’s difficulty making the transition from supernatural horror to more materialistic science fiction, even early in his career? 

The observant but uninvolved narrator tells readers from the very beginning of the story that he has “never heard an even approximately adequate explanation of the horror at Martin’s Beach.”  And one is unlikely given the metaphysical questions underpinning the story.  But it has something to do with hypnotism!  He cites a controversial article published by one Professor Alton around the time of the calamity:  “Are Hypnotic Powers Confined to Recognized Humanity?” 

Probably not.

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