Wednesday, March 30, 2016


Late in his career, only a few months before his death, one of Lovecraft’s better collaborative efforts was published in Weird Tales.  This was The Disinterment (1937), ostensibly written by Duane W. Rimel.  The story was originally assumed to be one of Lovecraft’s “secondary revisions”, that is, a work that he received as a complete draft and only lightly edited.  

In some preliminary notes to the fascinating anthology The Horror in the Museum (1970), S.T. Joshi observes that Lovecraft’s correspondence with Rimel, which began around 1934, shows that Lovecraft read and reviewed much of the younger author’s work.  For example, Lovecraft made a substantial contribution to Rimel’s The Tree on the Hill, which was written around 1934 but published in 1940.  (See also A Couple of Forbidden Trees).  Lovecraft’s letters to Rimel contains much praise for The Disinterment, while minimizing his involvement in producing the story.  Since Lovecraft was 25 years older than Rimel, it seems likely he was trying to provide support and encouragement to the younger man.    

Subsequent review of The Disinterment suggests that Lovecraft’s work on the story may have gone beyond superficial revision.  In his two volume biography of Lovecraft, published several decades after The Horror in the Museum, Joshi suggests that the story was either completely written by Lovecraft or is at least a deft imitation of the master’s style.  And Joshi points out that the subsequent quality of Rimel’s work and its resemblance to the Lovecraftian style never again approached that of this collaborative effort.  

The biographer identifies other elements that suggest The Disinterment is more Lovecraft’s than Rimel’s: his creative revision of the stereotypical “mad doctor” character, his grammatically elegant prose, and the characteristic restraint of his first person narrator, who cannot reveal the graphic horror of his predicament until virtually the last line.  To be fair to Rimel, only occasional words are italicized for dramatic effect at the very end. There is no climactic last sentence that is completely italicized.

Joshi likens The Disinterment “to some of Lovecraft’s early macabre stories, especially The Outsider” (1926), which it does resemble in terms of mood, setting and atmosphere.  However, the preoccupation with body horror—dismemberment, disfigurement, alteration of physical identity—links it more closely with later works like The Mound (written in the early 1930s but published in 1940), The Shadow Out of Time (1936), and The Thing on the Doorstep (1937). 

It is interesting to note that both The Disinterment and The Thing on the Doorstep appear in the same issue of Weird Tales; both involve major characters who are transported into bodies that are not their own.  (This of course is also the situation in The Shadow Out of Time, published just the year before.)  What’s going on here?

Another reason to assume Lovecraft is the primary author of The Disinterment is the story’s close resemblance to others in Lovecraft’s bromantic cycle of stories.  These include The Statement of Randolph Carter (1920)—probably the prototype for the rest—The Tree (1921), Hypnos (1923), The Hound (1924) The Quest of Iranon (1935), The Thing on the Doorstep (1937), and The Disinterment (1937).  

If readers tackle these stories more or less in this sequence a certain pattern of relationship emerges and becomes elaborated across stories.  All of them take place on a planet Earth completely devoid of women, and involve an essentially passive narrator being led ever deeper into some dreadful physical horror by a more aggressive, driven, or talented partner.

In The Disinterment, the narrator is slowly dying of leprosy, but is eager to avoid quarantine and live out his remaining years of life in relative freedom.  His housemate, with whom he has lived with for many years, is a notorious, avant-garde surgeon who specializes in “reanimation by therapeutic methods”.  He has returned from Haiti with a drug that mimics death.  Unbeknownst to the narrator, that is not all that he brought back from the island nation.  The two come up with a plan by which the narrator will counterfeit his own death, have his estate settled, and then live out the remainder of his years in obscurity.  The fact that he is to be “resurrected” 3 days after ingesting the drug will remind astute readers of how skillful Lovecraft was at taking biblical notions and turning them inside out for interesting effects.  

The process seems to work, but as the narrator recuperates from the ordeal of being buried alive and then exhumed, he begins to suspect that he has been the subject of one of his partner’s more ambitious surgical experiments.  Lovecraft and Rimel keep the awful secret well concealed until the end, allowing the reader to diagnose the narrator’s true condition from the disturbing symptoms he reports.  The gothic setting, the preoccupation with physical symptoms and altered sensations, and the theme of premature burial are weirdly reminiscent of Poe’s The Fall of the House of Usher (1839).  The narrator’s perspective of his long-time friend changes by degrees as he realizes the nature of his betrayal.   

Given the narrator’s references to some of his partner’s experiments with animals, this reader initially thought The Disinterment was a riff on H.G. Wells’ The Island of Doctor Moreau.  The actual horror is much worse, at least in Lovecraft’s world view, a kind of extreme miscegenation in which African and Caucasian bodies are dismembered and reassembled as one.  This image takes the story far out of the bromantic realm and makes it emblematic of contemporary racism and racial nightmare.  What is going on here?

An easy interpretation of stories in Lovecraft’s bromantic cycle is that they are somehow indicative of repressed homosexuality expressing itself through grotesque, nightmarish imagery.  At this point little can be determined one way or the other about Lovecraft’s sexual orientation, though some of his friendships with fellow horror writers, (Whitehead, Talman, Barlow) are suggestive; they seem to parallel relationships between male characters in this several of these tales. 

But another perspective is to see in these dynamic duos as two halves of the same restless soul, the submissive, resigned author adjacent to an idealized persona, a risk-taker, more confident and successful, though equally as doomed.  (This is actually what is depicted in Hypnos.)  Ultimately, the matter is irrelevant to assessing Lovecraft’s art and contribution to the field of horror.  And yet, if readers had a better understanding of Lovecraft’s struggles with self-esteem and with establishing a stable sense of self, his accomplishments might be appreciated even more


Saturday, March 26, 2016

The Effects of Gravity

The figure of the inventor, mad or otherwise, is quite common in pulp science fiction of the early twentieth century.  Inevitably his creations are examples of unrestrained hubris and egoism, and achieve spectacular, if ironic consequences.  (Her inventions on the other hand, had they received the attention due them and been documented with as much care, almost certainly would have been more sensible, more helpful to the commonweal.)  There are numerous examples of this stock character. 

Dr. Strange makes evil use of a device that combines hypnotism and radio waves in Hugh B. Cave’s The Murder Machine (1930).  Dr. Pollard develops technology that focuses cosmic rays and accelerates human evolution in Edmond Hamilton’s The Man Who Evolved (1931).  In another story by Hamilton, Dr. Detmold creates an artificial intelligence capable of reproducing itself.  It later marshals a giant robot army with which it attacks the eastern United States in the H.G. Wells inspired The Metal Giants (1926). 

More poignantly, a bereaved scientist develops technology by which he hopes to communicate with his deceased wife.  He nearly destroys the world in William Sloane’s marvelous The Edge of Running Water (1936), which is several cuts above the science fiction typical of the period.  (This novel is actually one of two recently published as The Rim of Morning just last year.)

Like Sloane, David H. Keller’s work in this subgenre is markedly different from the usual fare.  Keller was an older contemporary of H.P. Lovecraft’s, about 10 years his senior.  He was a psychiatrist before he turned to writing as a second career later in life.  This occupational background is reflected in his convincing portrayals of characters and their reactions to unusual circumstances.  Whereas Lovecraft tended to write himself in as the protagonist of most of his stories, Keller wrote about other people who may have been versions of some of the patients he knew.

The Flying Fool (1929) is about an inventor, though this one does more assembling than outright invention.  Unlike the protagonists in the afore-mentioned stories, Robert Smith is not a scientist, nor particularly deranged.  He is unhappy and restless, however.  He wants something better in life—he literally wants to rise above his work-a-day world as a department store clerk, and the contraption he builds is an obvious metaphor for economic transcendence.

The Flying Fool is in a collection published by Arkham House in 1952, Tales from Underwood.  The stories in the book are divided into sections reflecting Keller’s three broad areas of interest:  “the science-fictioneer”, “the fantaisiste” and “the psychiatrist”.  Most of his work originally appeared in Amazing Stories and in Weird Tales.

The setting of Keller’s story is New York City at the beginning of the Great Depression.  The poverty of the lead character and his wife—symbolized by her endless darning of socks that cannot be replaced with new ones—empowers the theme of the story:  the ruination of hopes and ambitions by a faltering economy that cannot support them.  Money is scarce, and its lack is the impetus for the main character, the amateur inventor Robert Smith, to explore various money-making schemes.  One of these involves developing a technological means for individuals to fly.
The Flying Fool (1929) begins as many stories of this type do, with a smattering of half-baked scientific theory:

Many centuries ago man realized that light and heat were related.  Then Joule and Rumford showed that light, heat, and energy were related according to definite physical laws.  Thus, energy was added to light and heat.  Now, gradually the scientists have proven that to these three forces can be added matter, space, time, gravitation, and electricity.  The only factor absent was to determine the relation between electricity and gravitation.  According to Einstein, [a frequently cited authority by pulp science fiction inventors—editor.], there is only one substance, ‘the field’, and this contains electrical and gravitational components which are closely tied together by a single formula…

It is a short leap from here to conceive of a device that operates through a combination of electricity, magnetism and a unique substance called “permalloy”.  Permalloy, recently invented, is strongly repelled by magnetic fields.  Conveniently, Smith learns that the Bell Telephone Laboratories nearby has some permalloy for sale, at ten dollars per pound.  This is a small fortune for the inventor, but the material is critical for Smith’s experiments. He sews it into the fabric of his suit—surely a tangible expression of his desire to move upward in the world.

(“Permalloy” may remind older readers of “Upsadasium”, featured in numerous episodes of Rocky and His Friends.  These aired in 1960 through 1961.  Bullwinkle’s uncle owns an upsadasium mine, and Rocky and his associates struggle to safeguard the anti-gravity material for the United States government, keeping it out of the hands of Boris and Natasha and the evil Pottsylvanian leader, Mr. Big.)  

As he nears the completion of his invention, Smith has to solve various technical problems:  how to keep the unit stable in flight, how to propel it horizontally, how ensure there is a safe amount of power to prevent him from plummeting back to earth like Icarus.  Keller weaves in some irony here, for the various innovations Smith makes on the way to mastering flight technology would have been money makers in themselves:  

And right there Robert Smith hovered on the edge of becoming a multimillionaire.  Had he patented that little idea and protected the patent, his wife would have had no more need to darn sox, but all he could think of at that time was going up in the air.

In the climactic scene, he sits in his specially designed electromagnetic chair on the balcony, about to throw the switch for the first trial run.  But from the interior of his cramped apartment he hears his two year old daughter begin to stir and cry in her sleep…

The Flying Fool is not as psychologically disturbing as Keller’s The Worm (1927) or The Thing in the Cellar (1932), nor as edgy as The Doorbell (1934).  The overall tone of this invention story is one of affection, sadness and irony.  Robert Smith will not be able to transcend his circumstances, even with a permalloy powered flying device.  It seems he would have achieved the same negative results if he had pursued door-to-door sales, taken a correspondence course, or engaged in some other get rich quick scheme.  Keller is describing a character type, or perhaps a character situation, one that is still very familiar to us today.  In hard times, what can an average Joe or Josephine do to overcome their economic fate?

Which brings to mind an individual of roughly the same time period—late 1920s to the mid 1930s—who was also unable to escape impoverishment despite grand ambitions.  H.P. Lovecraft subsisted for a couple decades on the dwindling estate of his deceased grandfather, and experienced only minimal success as an author during his lifetime.  It is remarkable, given his materialist bent and enthusiasm for science, that his fiction is almost completely devoid of inventions, technology, or scientists.

There were of course studious, antiquarian investigators poring over obscure tattered documents and connecting the dots.  In Lovecraft’s work there are numerous sorcerers, scholars and occultists, but almost no one wielding experimental gadgetry or applying the scientific method.  Scientists do begin to appear in his later work, for example At the Mountains of Madness (1936).  There is considerable evidence that Lovecraft was aware of contemporary advances in scientific knowledge and technology.  “Riemannian equations” and “the whole Einsteinian space-time continuum” appear in The Dreams in the Witch-House (1933).  An adapted Crookes tube is used as weapon in The Shunned House (1928). 

But for one reason or other Lovecraft never completely made the transition to science fiction, was never able to transcend or rise above horror.  In fact, he barely rose above ground level, literally speaking, much less achieved flight.  “Who can, with my knowledge, think of the earth’s unknown caverns without a nightmare dread of future possibilities?”  Though he surely did not seek salvation in religion, it seems he did not think scientific invention would provide much hope of deliverance, either for his characters, or himself.


George Allan England, author of the frequently anthologized The Thing From Outside (1923) has some amusing advice for aspiring science fiction writers, circa 1924.  Much of it is focused on stories involving scientific inventions.  See If You’d Rather Write Pulp Fiction…                                

Several earlier posts have discussed pulp science fiction stories featuring weird inventions:

Technology and Timeframes in Weird Menace Fiction (Hugh B. Cave’s The Murder Machine)

Our Cerebral Future (Edmond Hamilton’s The Man Who Evolved)

1. Robots Run Amok (Edmond Hamilton’s The Metal Giants)

2. Mad Scientist, Mad Gardener (R.G. Macready’s The Plant Thing)

Clues at the Scene of the Slime (Anthony M. Rud’s Ooze)

Necromantic Epiphenomena (William Sloane’s The Edge of Running Water)

Don’t Look Now, But… (Frances Steven’s Unseen—Unfeared and H.P. Lovecraft’s From Beyond)