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The Lowndes Letters:
Providence, Rhode Island: , 20 January and 20 February 1937. two autograph letters signed to Robert W. Lowndes. Two autograph letters signed in the hand of H. P. Lovecraft, respectively 6pp and 10pp written in blue ink in a small but clear hand over 3 and 5 leaves (225 x 140 mm), each with the original envelope addressed in Lovecraft's hand to Robert W. Lowndes in Connecticut, respectively franked 20 January and 20 February 1937, and both additionally signed with Lovecraft's name and Rhode Island return address. Housed together in a black morocco album with acetate sleeves for each leaf/envelope, titles silver to spine, Cthulhuan tentacles in green morocco onlay across spine and sides, stars tooled to both sides in silver, gilt marbled endpapers. This in a green cloth slipcase. Together with Crypt of Cthulhu #62 magazine, 1989, octavo with original illustrated wrappers. Usual folds with occasional mild tanning, one envelope with gear and tape repair, but mostly in excellent condition. H. P. Lovecraft (1890-1937), in the months before his death, writes two exceptionally long letters in response to youthful fan-mail from budding writer Robert A. W. Lowndes (1916-1998), replying to Lowndes's request for help in his literary endeavours with extraordinary generosity and thoughtful encouragement. The letters encompass no less than sixteen pages of tight script, with Lovecraft expositing in full his literary tastes, philosophy of life, and theory of horror. He opens his letter with charming self effacement, first of all apologising for "my lousy scrawl - but I have an utter detestation of the typing process - which fatigues and enervates me oppressively. I never use the machine except under compulsion", and describing himself as "just another dub pottering around the edge of aesthetic problems too large for him". He goes on to encourage and guide Lowndes in "your literary diet" which "would seem to be all in the right direction for one as artistically sensitive, & destined for expression on his own book, as you appear to be. I assume that you realise the abysmal inferiority of the pulp-magazine writers (among them titans like Clark Ashton Smith & the late Robert E. Howard stand out as notable exceptions) as compared with real authors of fantasy like Poe, Algernon Blackwood, Arthur Machen, Dunsany, Walter de la Mare, M. R. James & so on - or with the few real authors (H. G. Wells, S. Fowler Wright, W. Olaf Stapleton... I can think of no more!) who have produced 'science fiction' of adult calibre. The less one reads of the magazine junk, the better for his taste & style. If you are not already familiar with the principal classics of fantastic literature I'd be glad to let you have the names of some books which I look upon as almost 'required reading'." This offer of a Lovecraftian reading list was evidently pounced upon in Lowndes's reply, as it is given in full in his February letter, thus (for the record): "And now for those recommendations I spoke of. If you haven't read Blackwood, you have a treat ahead of you - but be sure to choose his best rather than worst products, since he is a curiously & bewilderingly uneven author. Some of his tales are among the finest products of the fantastic imagination - unarguably acute & serious studies of the deep-seated human emotions & processes which produce the illusion of the unreal - yet other things of his almost touch the nadir of bathos, sentimentality, & namby-pamby. Read Incredible Adventures of John Silence - Physician Extraordinary - & get hold of some collection containing the short stories The Willows & The Wendigo. But don't waste time on The Wave, Tongues of Fire, The Extra Day, & The Garden of Survival. If you like I can lend you John Silence, Willows & Wendigo. Machen is another revelation. Get hold of the Knopf edition of The House of Souls, which contains The White People & The Great God Pan. Read also The Hill of Dreams, though it is psychological rather than supernatural. Don't miss The Three Impostors, & The Terror is also worth going through. Almost anything by Machen's is worth reading - for he hasn't Blackwood's unevenness. As a medievaevalist, you'd probably like his Secret Glory & Great Return. His story of the Angel of Mons - The Bowmen - is so lifelike that it became a piece of folklore a week after its publication in 1914. People tried to tell Machen that he didn't invent the idea, but that soldiers actually saw the supernatural archers he describes! I can lend you a good deal of Machen. Montague Rhode James is today best obtainable in Omnibus form - all his stories bound together - but in most libraries you'll probably run across the separate books of the older edition - Ghost Stories of An Antiquary, More G. S. of an Ant., A Thin Ghost & Others, A Warning to the Curious. The first three volumes here named contain the best stuff. I can lend you these. Of Walter de la Mare read the novel The Return, & the short stories Seaton's Aunt (in The Riddle & Other Stories), Mr Kempe & All-Hallows (these last in The Connoisseur & Other Stories). Dunsany - petering out these days - is worth a special study. Besides what you've read & acted (congratulations on your leading role!), don't miss The Gods of Pegana, Time and the Gods, The Sword of Welleran, The Book of Wonder, Chronicles of Rodriguez, The King of Elfland's Daughter, Five Plays (with The Gods of the Mountain). Glad you know Shiel's Purple Cloud. Try if possible to get hold of the book (The Pale Ape & Other Stories) containing The House of Sounds - Shiel's real masterpiece. I'd give a lot to own that item! Stapledon's great work is The Last & First Men - a stupendous cosmic survey. Get hold of it if it kills you - I wish I had a copy! Of S. Fowler Wright read The World Below, which I can lend. Of Ambrose Bierce read both short story collections - In the Midst of Life & Can Such Things Be? Of Robert W. Chambers read The King in Yellow. Of William Hope Hodgson read The House on the Borderland, The Boats of Glen Carrig, & The Night Land - despite the miserable & innaccurate attempts to ape archaic diction in the two latter. Going back to the elder classics, you ought to read Beckford's Vathek & Episodes of Vathek as well as Mrs Radcliffe's Udolpho, Lewis's The Monk, & Maturin's Melmoth, the Wanderer. Also Mrs Shelley's Frankenstein. I assume, of course, that you know Poe (from kiver to kiver). It would hardly be possible to give a full list in brief compass, but I'll put down suggestions when I think of them. Try to get John Buchan's Witch Wood, Herbert Gorman's The Lady Who Came to Stay. Also ask for suggestions from others. Another fine fantasy is The Worm Ouroboros by E. R. Eddison. Some of the popular weird collections & anthologies contain excellent short stories. Be on the lookout for various Omnibuses of Crime, the Asquith Ghost Books, the melanges called Beware After Dark & Creeps by Night, Benson's Visible & Invisible, and Wakefield's They Return at Evening. The fantasy field is really a quite extensive one, & I never expect to get more than half way through it myself." Lovecraft's preoccupation with the serious literary responsibilities of the fantasy writer occasions his warning against hack writing: "I fancy you won't be sidetracked into popular book writing for ready cash, as has happened to a tragically great number of those who started out with serious literary intentions!" This he continues in his February letter with some trenchant assessment of his contemporaries: "I still think that in the long run it is wiser for the sincere artist to accept humble material conditions & turn to almost any source of food-clothing-shelter money other than style-wrecking pulp slavery, in my own case, I'm saved the trouble of choosing – for I simply can't cook up the kind of nauseous drivel which brings wide acceptance & substantial returns. Long & Wandrei have been pretty well sucked into the vortex of hopeless hackdom. Bloch & Kuttner & Rimel still have a fighting chance. Price has touched bottom & may (thanks to a phenomenal abstract intellect) fight his way back. Smith never really hit the toboggan despite some perilous concessions in the Wonder Story days of five or more years ago. Derleth is getting through unscathed – but he is an exceptional case. Scribners is even now bringing out his first serious novel. In general the few who can get away with hack tripe are the ones who can reel it off easily & mechanically so that it doesn't actually touch their imaginations." Perhaps the most fascinating aspect of the Lowndes letters is the spectacle of Lovecraft iterating in full his strikingly clear-headed materialist view of the cosmos (in a manner remarkably reminiscent of Lucretius's De Rerum Natura), and wrestling with the proper role of dreams and the imagination in relation to this: "I am a strong advocate of the impersonal, cosmic, or scientific point of view – the perspective not merely of Voltaire but of Helvetius, La Mettrie, Locke, Huxley, Herschel, Bertrand Russell, & the materialists in general. It takes nothing away from the charm of fancy to realise that the whole university is simply a vortex of aimless though patterned physical & chemical reactions without importance of absolute values. Imagination is too local, momentary specialised, decorative, & bound up in the unreflective enjoyment of the immediate, to suffer from a knowledge of the larger objective probabilities of the cosmos. On the other hand, a full and disillusioned perception of the universe is a great aid to good psychological adjustment. We never get worried about ourselves or anything else when we realise that nothing in the whole blasted sphere of creation has any particular significance of matters a god damn. Relative values still hold good & can form a basis for mild enjoyment – but our knowledge that they are not cosmically absolute helps us to avoid taking them too seriously. The world of dreams & moods is nonetheless interesting because it is merely a world of illusions &* symbols with only a local meaning. What the hell of it – when nothing within our power of conception is other than local or relative as scaled against unknowable infinity? No need of worrying about the cosmos – from whose point of view the momentary incident of terrestrial organic life is completely negligible… The modicum of obtainable smoothness & harmony which a rational & well-organised life-pattern tends to foster is its own reward. The fact that it has no cosmic meaning, & that it can never even approximate the dreams of individual visionaries, ought not to give us the least concern. Why the devil should a rationally smooth-working set of institutions & mental habits 'mean' anything beyond the immediate comfort it produced – or correspond to the pipe-dreams of this or that theorist or mystic?" Here, indeed, is the scientist wrestling with his soul. He goes on to explain, in this context, exactly why he writes his "weird" tales, and so doing expounds the Lovecraftian theory of horror: "I perpetrate these in order to get the satisfaction of visualising more clearly & detailedly & stably the vague, elusive, fragmentary impressions of wonder, beauty, & adventurous expectancy which are conveyed to me by certain sights…, ideas, occurrences & images encountered in art & literature. I choose weird stories because they suit my inclination best – one of my strongest and most persistent wishes being to achieve, momentarily, the illusion of some strange suspension or violation of the galling limitations of time, space, & natural law which for ever imprisons us & frustrates our curiosity about the infinite cosmic spaces beyond the radius of our sight & analysis. These stories frequently emphasise the element of horror because fear is our deepest & strongest emotion, & the one which best lends itself to the creation of nature-defying illusions. Horror & the unknown or the strange are always closely connected, so that it is hard to create a convincing picture of shattered natural law or cosmic alienage & 'outsideness' without laying stress on the emotion of fear. The reasons why time plays a great part in so many of my tales is that this element looms up in my mind (as in Dunsany's) as the most profoundly dramatic & grimly terrible thing in the universe. Conflict with time seems to me the most potent & fruitful theme in all human expression." He continues, swept along by the effect of his investigations into the weird: "This ought to furnish at least a partial answer to your query as to why I always have characters repulsed, horrified, maddened, frozen into merciful silence, or wholly or partly destroyed by the achievement of the supernatural knowledge of contact with the unknown which they seek. Whatever is unknown or alien is necessarily horrible or 'evil' – because our only standard of comfort or restful equilibrium or 'good' is the prolongation of some harmonious adjustment pleasantly known in the past. We are always dissatisfied with our narrow world, yet would inevitably be horrified & overwhelmed if we really could suddenly transcend its rigid boundaries. Whatever is not favourably known to us by experience is a subject of fear. The child instinctively fears the dark. The primitive geographer fills with nameless monsters whatever lands he knows nothing about. This has nothing to do with scientific truth, Actually, the new and alien region might, when gradually introduced to us, be very favourable as an environment. But it is a strong & ineradicable human instinct … & no weird story can be more than a picture of some traditional instinct or mood or belief or attitude. Our minds and emotions are so constituted that they do not wish to be removed from the repetition of known experiences. What has no reference to previous impressions can have no meaning - & what has no meaning is potentially dangerous. We fear and shun strange fruits or berries because they may be poisonous. Thus there is a basis of primitive cautionary logic in man's fear of the unknown & the strange. Then, too, there is a subtler psychological aspect based on something like homesickness. After all, apart from the most basic animal satisfactions, nothing really pleases or comforts us except by arousing pleasant associations based on past ideas and experiences … nothing, that is outside the realm of abstract intellectual curiosity. Even our sense of agreeable novelty & adventure depends wholly on the real relationship of the 'new' thing or experience to things or experiences we have known before. Without reference-points derived from our personal or traditional past, nothing has any meaning or value. In an unfamiliar, backgroundless void the illusions of value, direction, significance, & purpose cannot exist - & without these illusions we are lost. Bewilderment, loneliness, & ultimate horror are our only possible reactions. So in spite of all our impatience with the limited & the normal – that impatience to which fantasy owes its existence – we are still more overwhelmed by sudden confrontation with the unlimited or the totally alien. In order to face & become adjusted to anything really new or strange, we must make its acquaintance very gradually – giving ourselves time to correlate it with the body of our previous impressions, & to assign it a definite place in the understood scheme of cause & effect. Don't forget that the very chain of strict causation which sometimes galls us is also our symbol of protection against incalculable & unimaginable evils. Without it, anything might happen - & our experience in life, where pain & injury so vastly outweigh pleasure, leads us to visualise that 'anything' as more often horrible & destructive than welcome & beneficent. Thus the deep-rooted human association of the unknown & alien with the sinister – an association so strong & natural & omnipresent that it cannot be disregarded in the artistic process of mood-picturing which lies behind serious fantasy." The February letter sees Lovecraft respond to Lowndes's "remarks on the dreamer & the materialist", expanding into a mature final apologia for the life of the writer: "I think you somewhat underestimate the degree of tolerable balance & contentment achievable by the dreamer who is materialist enough to see through his own dreams – or (to view him from the opposite angle) the materialist who is dreamer enough to have dreams & enjoy them as such without forming grandiose & disappointing ideas about himself, life, & the cosmos. I can't get as enthusiastic about the Dionysiac stuff – the ideal of a full & various life of the senses – as some aesthetes do. As one with the scientific point of view, I can't avoid the perspective which recognises all sensory phenomena as mere electro-chemical reactions & glandular discharges in a type of organism by no means dissimilar to a goat's or dog's. to me, the sort of activity worthy of a human mind is that which involves those tenuous and peculiarly human qualities centring in cosmic perception & recognition – the sort embracing the gratification of intellectual curiosity, the enjoyment of cosmic rhythms and symmetries, & the exercise of those processes of creation & expression whereby we record our response to what we experience, & vicariously achieve what lies just beyond our reach. So far as I can see, the pursuit of this form of activity provides a perfectly tolerable goal & set of rewards for living – making the process of consciousness distinctly worth supporting even in the face of obstacles & drawbacks. Others may differ, but that' the way it looks to me. Naturally, we are happier if worldly things come our way – wealth, travel, fortunate marriage, security, recognition, esteem, & all that – but even if they don't, I believe that (barring the acutest hardship of physical pain) the residue provided by intellectual & artistic activity forms ample ground for preferring existence to non-existence if one is properly appreciative." In addition to these important and at times moving passages, Lowndes also received a complete Lovecraftian historiography from the dark ages to the present and beyond: "Your devotion to the Middle Ages is very interesting - & it is surely not without its justifying aspect. As a time which produced the Gothic cathedral, & which brought into literature that element of mysterious cosmic out-reaching which is the Teuton's especial contribution, the western world's dark period can surely be forgiven much in the way of ignorance, bigotry, & hysterical irrationality. I, however, am too devoted to the element of reason in life to be any sort of mediaevalist. The streak of Gothic fancy in my literary attempts is really a sort of contradiction of my general temperament – or at least, of the intellectual side of my temperament. Classical - & especially Roman – antiquity has always been my chief animator, & I have a parallel sense of identification with the eighteenth century, which drew so many of its typical elements from the classic Roman world I like the free play of intelligence & of a critical sense, & dislike to see people kidding themselves with myths & superstitions. Heaven knows I enjoy fantasy & supernaturalism enough as aesthetic subject-matter, but I want to see them kept in their place as art material instead of running riot through the serious philosophy of adults. As for vigorous Renaissance figures like Leonardo da Vinci, Chaucer, Titian Raphael, Michelangelo, Rabelais, Montaigne, the Elizabethan dramatists, Copernicus, Tycho, Kepler, & others whose mental and artistic activity from the 1300's onward astonished the world – I ascribe them not to the dark period which they ushered out, but to the age of classical revival which dawned & flowered simultaneously with them. The world recovered very slowly from the intellectual, artistic, & physical squalor of the worst period (say about 600 – 1000 A.D.), but in & after the 14th century the cumulative results of the gradual upturn began to be manifest. The Arabs in Spain had passed on a lot of Greek learning in the 11th and 12th centuries, & when the fall of Constantinople drove the Greek scholars westwards in the 15th century the movement was accelerated. Whatever advantages of imaginative stimulation the Middle Ages may have possessed, seem to me to have been purchased at too high a price. Precious though they may have been, I cannot think that they were worth the filthy, disease-ridden, & verminous daily life, the dense universal ignorance, the vicious priestly arrogance, the grovelling intellectual degradation & the hideously barbarous social organisation which in general characterised the period. And yet, in retrospect, we must be grateful for what the period did contribute, & correspondingly lenient about its evils. The present age of transition is another one calling for lenient judgment, & for a keen perception of merits as opposed to evils. Granting the dull texture of life fostered by the rampant commercialism of the 19th century & the unassimilated phenomenon of mechanical quantity-production, & the destructive hates & unrest caused by the lag of social & political evolution behind material invention & technology, we have today many redeeming things to behold. False ideas & ancient injustices are questions on a wholly unprecedented scale – this being part of a larger movement, launched by the expansion of human knowledge & the growth of scientific method, whereby mankind is coming to demand more consistency & more logical justification in his institutions. With the opium of religion swept out of the way, greater stress is laid on the decent organisation of the life which is really ours. Of course, the present generation will not reap the benefits of this trend. Things move too slowly for that. But it is none the less encouraging to see that civilisation – despite some incidental losses – is dominantly headed away from caprice & cruelty & ignorance & toward the logical utilisation of human knowledge & resources. One may hope that the trend will not be interrupted or retarded by suicidal wars or universal reactionary movements. Granted normal evolution, there will ultimately be achieved a stage of greater social & economic equilibrium amidst which the arts will have a chance to flourish more healthily & more integratedly than at present." The final passage of the letters sees Lovecraft wrestle with Lowndes's challenging proposition of "a human being as welcoming something utterly alien", which he comes to comprehend only as a form of madness or the possibility of an "'outsider' infusion". He also encompasses a consideration of "diseased decadents like Baudelaire & Huysman", and of course Edgar Allen Poe: "The ghosts, monsters, & alien dimensions of the mad exist only within their own minds. Poe bridged the gap as well as anyone could - but there was only one Poe!". We are, in these responses to Lowndes's proposition, given a valuable glimpse of Lovecraft sketching out ideas and possibilities for character and story. This he concludes with an explicit iteration of the Lovecraftian method: "The people are puppets - symbols of the dreamer's detachment & passivity in the face of the phantoms that troop past him. The phenomena are the true protagonists". When he was writing these letters to Lowndes, Lovecraft was in fact dying of stomach cancer. In his February letter he complains of the "persistant siege of intestinal grippe - or some damned thing of the sort -... keeping my energies at such a low ebb that my whole programme is in chaos." Lovecraft lived in great pain in the following weeks, and kept, in a manner characteristic of the scientific curiosity so evident in these letters, a diary of his illness until his death on 15 March. Though here Lovecraft shows himself still full of energy and plans for the future ("I'll be 47 next August"), and never indulging moribund morbidity, it is nonetheless likely that an acute awareness of his own mortality at this time would have been what spurred Lovecraft on in imparting thus so much of himself to this young writer-to-be whom he had never met. His volubility as a correspondent is noted, but in these letters Lovecraft goes far beyond his customary call of duty, resulting in what might be the Platonic ideal for fanmail responses, and setting down in these last months of his life the definitive passing of the Lovecraftian torch. Lowndes, for his part, would go on to become a prominent writer of science fiction, counted one of the Futurians. His story, "The Outpost at Altark" was published in Super Science in 1940. As editor of several science fiction magazine he would go on to be, like Lovecraft before him, a supporter of young writers, most notably Stephen King whom he gave his first story publication. These iconic letters were printed in the special Lowndes issue of the Crypt of Cthulhu magazine #62 (1989), a copy of which is included here.
      [Bookseller: Peter Harrington]
Last Found On: 2018-01-09           Check availability:      Biblio    


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