In a letter to Robert H. Barlow that H.P. Lovecraft sent in February of 1934, the older man complains about “…the captivity to which the Frost-Daemon has consigned me during the worst cold spell in the history of Providence.” He goes on to compare the current inclement weather to historically cold winters going back to Revolutionary times.
Of course, I can’t go out at all—for 20 above is the lowest temperature at which it’s physically safe for me to be out for any length of time. Very fortunately this house—heated with steam piped from the Engineering Bldg. of Brown University—can be kept at a tropical temperature 24 hours a day, my room being 87˚ at the present moment.
With his tolerance for higher temperatures, Lovecraft might have been one of the last survivors in Robert H. Barlow’s apocalyptic piece, Till A’ the Seas (1935), which he co-wrote with his younger friend. The two worked on the draft together till 3:00 a.m. one New Year’s night, according to S.T. Joshi. Barlow was 16 at the time. It is more of a prose poem than a story—the two principle characters merely dwindle and die without much struggle—but it is an interesting documentation of Lovecraft’s cosmicist world view.
Joshi notes that the manuscript for Till A’ the Seas survives, so that scholars can easily determine from Lovecraft’s handwritten revisions how much of the work Lovecraft contributed. Lovecraft apparently made several minor edits early on in the piece, but is clearly responsible for one of the very last paragraphs. In that passage he articulates a bleak view of humanity’s future, the consequence of a planetary cataclysm that has sent Earth into a death spiral, inexorably circling ever closer to the sun. The process of earth’s destruction takes millennia—“not with a bang but a whimper”—and is irreversible.
And now at last the Earth was dead. The final, pitiful survivor had perished. All the teeming billions; the slow aeons; the empires and civilizations of mankind summed up in this poor twisted form—and how titanically meaningless it all had been!
Till A’ the Seas is titled with a quote, which suggests that the reference is significant. It is a line from the third verse of Robert Burns’ famous poem A Red, Red Rose (1796): “Till a’ the seas gang dry my dear,/And the rocks melt wi’ the sun:/O I will love thee still, my dear,/While the sands o’ life shall run.” A Red, Red Rose is one of the most famous love songs, performed by a variety of musicians in the centuries since its composition.
Lovecraft began corresponding with Barlow in the early 1930s, and the younger man—Lovecraft was 28 years his senior—had an important role in the early disposition of Lovecraft’s papers immediately after his death in 1937. Barlow is also credited with the preservation of Lovecraft’s work for later scholars; he gave this material to the John Hay Library and encouraged other colleagues of Lovecraft to make similar contributions of correspondence and manuscripts.
S.T. Joshi and L. Sprague de Camp—Lovecraft’s principle biographers—both describe Lovecraft’s sojourns with Barlow and his family in Florida in the mid-1930s, where he enjoyed and was revived by the warmer climate. The relationship between Lovecraft and Barlow seems to have been unique and worthy of further study, though Joshi admits that little is known about Lovecraft’s “unprecedentedly long stay with Barlow.” The motif of a partnership between an older man and a younger one occurs often in Lovecraft’s work—see for example The Thing on the Doorstep (1937), Cool Air (1928), and The Quest of Iranon (1935), among others. L. Sprague de Camp reports a reminiscence of Barlow’s mother in his Lovecraft, A Biography (1975):
…her son and Lovecraft were inseparable. They stayed up all night, and did not bother coming down for breakfast. Their days were spent rowing on the lake, playing with Barlow’s cats…And always they conversed, with Lovecraft speaking volubly and incessantly on topics as unrelated as the Abyssinian war, chemistry, and Lord Dunsany. The Barlows had built a “backwoods” cabin…Robert used it as a workshop. While Lovecraft talked, the boy bound books with the skins of snakes he had shot for that purpose.
Till A’ the Seas is more of a sketch than a completed story. It describes the fate of a young man named Ull, possibly the very last man alive on earth—and not for long. He is nineteen years old, a few years older than the author who imagined him at the time. A cosmic disaster altered the earth’s orbit thousands of years before, bringing it ever closer to the sun, rendering the planet uninhabitable between the polar regions. Only a handful of humans have managed to survive on an earth now in the advanced stages of desertification. Ull’s quest is to locate water, and live among the last surviving people in the far north. He does not succeed.
Joshi describes the story as “pretty routine stuff” though there are some interesting elements. Barlow shifts perspectives, beginning with a solitary individual surveying the desolation, then steps back to provide the back story of earth’s demise, then zooms in again on Ull and his last days. The unpronounceable character and place names, and the Zothique-like late world setting reflect the influence of Lord Dunsany by way of Clark Ashton Smith.
But the apocalyptic back story makes Till A’ the Seas sound more like conventional end-of-the-world science fiction, so there is some tension between fantasy elements—for example, the involvement of Mladdna, the mysterious matriarch—and science fiction concepts. The Lovecraftian touch comes at the end, with a gloomy rendition of the cosmicist world view:
The stars whirred on; the whole careless plan would continue for infinities unknown. This trivial end of a negligible episode mattered not to distant nebulae or to suns new-born, flourishing, and dying. The race of man, too puny and momentary to have a real function or purpose, was as if it had never existed. To such a conclusion the aeons of its farcically toilsome evolution had led.
Apocalyptic themes in science fiction and horror have been popular for over a century, and currently seem to be very much in vogue, with virally produced zombies and vampires the most popular mode of destruction at present. The syllabus of books chosen this year by our local science fiction and horror reading group is heavy with end-of-world novels:
•Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake (2003)—environmental deterioration and genetic devolution.
•Arkady and Boris Strugatsky’s Roadside Picnic (1972)—overwhelming impact of extraterrestrial contact.
•Octavia E. Butler’s Parable of the Sower (1993)—environmental, economic and social collapse.
•Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven (2014)—devastating worldwide plague.
•Ernest Cline’s Ready Player One (2011)—global energy crisis, economic collapse, global warming.
So as you can imagine our reading group discussions have been fairly glum lately. Here is the backstory to the end of planet earth offered by Robert H. Barlow in Till A’ the Seas:
The ever present heat, as Earth drew nearer the sun, withered and killed with pitiless rays. It had not come at once; long aeons had gone before any could feel the change. And all through those first ages man’s adaptable form had followed the slow mutation and modelled itself to fit the more and more torrid air. Then the day had come when men could bear their hot cities but ill, and a gradual recession began, slow, yet deliberate. Those towns and settlements closest to the equator had been first…
Here is one from a contemporary novel, Cline’s Ready Player One:
…Our global civilization came at a huge cost. We needed a whole bunch of energy to build it, and we got that energy by burning fossil fuels…and now it’s pretty much all gone…Also, it turns out that burning all those fossil fuels had some nasty side effects, like raising the temperature of our planet and screwing up the environment. So now the polar ice caps are melting, sea levels are rising, and the weather is all messed up…
And finally, here is the backstory from one of the earliest end-of-the-world tales, pre-figuring the events in Revelation—which is probably the template for much apocalyptic literature. But this passage, from the book of Genesis (6:5-8), antedates Revelation by over a thousand years:
The Lord saw how great man’s wickedness on the earth had become, and that every inclination of the thoughts of his heart was only evil all the time. The Lord was grieved that he had made man on the earth, and his heart was filled with pain. So the Lord said, “I will wipe mankind, who I have created, from the face of the earth—men and animals, and creatures that move along the ground, and birds of the air—for I am grieved that I have made them.” But Noah found favor in the eyes of the Lord.
So it seems that, on a macro level at least, there are at least three approaches to an apocalypse: 1) a cosmic disaster over which humankind has no control and which renders human life inconsequential, powerless, and temporary 2) a disaster we have created ourselves which may have been avoided, and 3) a moral and ethical failure that earns us cataclysmic justice. With respect to the extreme cosmicist view espoused by Lovecraft and Barlow, human life is not meaningful unless humanity can be held responsible for its demise, and so perhaps avoid it, or at least struggle against it.
But on a micro level, the end-of-the-world, or the end of a world, can have as many different meanings as there are individual people. It is striking—and ironic—that the protagonist of Till A’ the Seas dies by drowning, (he topples into a well). Death by drowning is the method Lovecraft often fantasized about on the occasions he contemplated suicide. The image shows up in several of his lesser known stories, for example The Quest of Iranon (1935), Psychopompos: A Tale in Rhyme (1919), The Doom that Came to Sarnath (1920), and possibly Celephaïs (1922). Could our preoccupation with apocalyptic literature be a form of collective suicidal ideation, a social death wish? When Barlow and Lovecraft wrote about the world coming to an end, was it because they wanted it to?