Thursday, April 12, 2012

Biography and "The Call of Cthulhu"-Part 5

Several months ago, I wrote about H.P. Lovecraft and his story "The Call of Cthulhu" in a four-part article called "Biography and 'The Call of Cthulhu'." That article has proved to be be one of the most popular among readers of my blog, and it prompted an exchange between me and a reader named Magister.

My supposition was that someone--either Lovecraft or Weird Tales editor Farnsworth Wright--revised "The Call of Cthulhu" before it was published in the February 1928 issue of Weird Tales. My sole evidence for that supposition comes from the story itself: in order for "The Call of Cthulhu" to have been set in the very recent past--with its final chronological events having taken place (by implication) in late 1927--someone would have had to revise some of the dates in the story. Magister questioned that, and rightly so, for Lovecraft was notorious for not wanting to retype his work. Also, Magister pointed out that the surviving typescript does not include the revisions to dates I had supposed. So did Lovecraft write "The Call of Cthulhu" in 1926 in its final form and set the story in the near future? Or did someone revise some dates immediately before it was published in 1928 to reflect the year's gap between original submission and acceptance for publication? I tried to make the case for a revision. My case may not have been very compelling and I may have argued too much in its defense. Magister was doubtful of a revision and gave some strong evidence against it. You can read our exchange of comments below.

Something has been bothering me in the time since I wrote my comments however. Again, it's a date, or I should say the lack of a date. Lovecraft was fastidious in presenting the facts of his story. He tells us in documentary detail when and where events occur, who was present, what they saw or said or experienced. He is vague in at least one place, though. Towards the end of the story, the narrator writes: "Sailing for London, I re-embarked at once for the Norwegian capital; and one autumn day landed at the trim wharves in the shadow of the Egeberg" [emphasis added]. As "The Call of Cthulhu" was published in February 1928, that "one autumn day" could only have been in 1927, a date still in the future when Lovecraft composed his tale. In fact, all the exact dates Lovecraft gave in "The Call of Cthulhu" are before the late summer or early autumn of 1926 when he wrote the story. None of the events that take place after 1926 have dates attached to them except for the death of George Gammell Angell in the winter of 1926-1927. It appears as though Lovecraft was projecting his story into the very near future. If that was the case and there weren't any revisions, then the publication of "The Call of Cthulhu" in February 1928 was timed to perfection. I say that because the events of the story and its framing device would have come to a close short days or weeks before it was accepted and typeset for publication. 

One of the great innovations in "The Call of Cthulhu" was its seeming factual basis and its immediacy. So was its date of publication intended to enforce the immediacy of the story? Did Farnsworth Wright recognize in 1927-1928 that now was the time to publish "The Call of Cthulhu"? My feeling is that he did not, that the publication of "The Call of Cthulhu" just came about in a certain way unrelated to the timeline within the story. In any case, that perfect timing--my perception of intent on the part of author or editor--is what led me to think there were revisions to "The Call of Cthulhu." Magister is probably right: there probably weren't any revisions, and Weird Tales printed the story more or less as it was originally composed. But it could not have come at a better time.

On October 2, 2012, Magister Wrote:
"The story must have gone through a revision sometime before its publication in the February 1928 issue of Weird Tales, for some of its events occur after October 1926." What are these events that so unequivocally point to a post-October 1926 revision? Is it not possible to write a story set in the near future?? (One more thing: De Camp on Lovecraft. Not a reliable source.)
By Magister on Biography and "The Call of Cthulhu"-Part 3 on 10/2/11

My Reply:
Dear Magister,
The narrator of "The Call of Cthulhu" writes: "My knowledge of the thing began in the winter of 1926-1927 with the death of my granduncle." That being so, his investigations would have taken place in the months following, culminating in his arrival "[o]ne autumn day" in Oslo. If George Gammell Angell died in the winter of 1926-1927, then his grandnephew, the narrator, would not have discovered the truth behind the Cthulhu cult until the following autumn when he read Johansen's account of the encounter with Cthulhu. The narrator's death presumably came in late 1927, leaving little time for his manuscript to be discovered among his papers and submitted to Weird Tales. It would then have to be read, considered, accepted, typeset, printed, and sent to the newsstand in time for a February 1928 cover date (which is usually later than the actual arrival of the magazine on the newsstand). I know I'm mixing fact and fiction here, but that seems to have been Lovecraft's aim. He certainly would have had a tight timeline for the story and its events. It would have been uncharacteristic of him (and risky) to depart from it. I agree with you that a story set in the near future isn't out of the question, but I think Lovecraft was shooting for plausibility and immediacy for maximum effect in "The Call of Cthulhu." It seems more likely that he would have revised the story to that end. The revisions, if there were any, may not have been extensive. They may have been just a revision to a couple of dates. I could be wrong, and I'll admit that I haven't consulted many other sources except for the story itself. But what more valuable source is there than the original work? The man from whom I bought my copy of de Camp's biography said that there are those who object to it. I'm not sure why. You say that de Camp isn't a reliable source. Can you expand on that? Thanks for writing. I look forward to hearing back from you. TH October 2, 2011 12:03 PM
By Terence Hanley on Biography and "The Call of Cthulhu"-Part 3 on 10/2/11

Magister's Response:
OK, I see your reasoning regarding the dates; still, I can't regard that as conclusive evidence of a revision. Weird Tales rejected the story in October 1926. Would the time-frame of the story have been laid much earlier in that version? I doubt that, since it would have given the plot a much shorter time to unfold. The date of the earthquake was fixed, since that was a real event. One more thing: Donald Wandrei said nice things about "The Call of Cthulhu" to Farnsworth Wright when visiting Chicago, prompting Wright to ask to see the story again, whereupon it was accepted. If there were new revisions, Lovecraft would have had to prepare a new typescript of the story, because the dates as given are present in the preserved typescript (I'm assuming, since the corrected version published by Arkham House in 1984 is based on this typescript and the dates are there). Since Lovecraft hated typing and "The Call of Cthulhu" is a very long story, it seems very unlikely that he prepared a new typescript; instead he must have used his old one -- the one that was rejected in October 1926 -- and this must be the T.Ms. that we have today. With the post-1926 dates. As for De Camp... For starters, it is now 36 years out of date. Lots of new information has come to light since then. Second, the errors. Without bothering to check the book itself, I remember that De Camp gave the wrong title for one of the De Castro collaborations, and when he quotes Lovecraft's and Fred Jackson's poems (the ones with which they put their feud to rest) he has obviously switched them. In one place, he corrects his source even though he provides no evidence why such a correction is necessary: When Clara Hess says that she sometimes met Lovecraft's mother at Theodore Phillips's place at Angell Street, De Camp corrects this to "Whipple Phillips", apparently unaware that Whipple's cousin Theodore indeed lived on the same street. And so on. Third, the notes. Mixing your sources into one big lump instead of providing one note per quotation is not how it's done. It is no help to the reader, and I have found quotations that do not occur in the sources where De Camp says (or seemingly says, since his references are so difficult to untangle) they occur. Fourth, the silliness in x-ing out the name of Lovecraft's friend whom Lovecraft described in a letter as a Nazi sympathiser, because the man was still alive at the time. De Camp leaves enough information to make a 99% certain identification of Alfred Galpin possible. I was able to figure this out years before the uncensored letter in question was published. Fifth, the supercilious style. We learn lots of things that Lovecraft did wrong, i. e., he did not do them the De Camp way. Thus, we learn more about De Camp's views and values than we learn about Lovecraft's. De Camp simply has no understanding of Lovecraft's views and therefore doesn't explain them very well. Sixth, the selectiveness. De Camp knew about Lovecraft's humorous stories, yet he never mentions them at all. Not even one word. I'd recommend Joshi's H. P. LOVECRAFT: A LIFE or its unabridged form, I AM PROVIDENCE.

And My Final Comment:
Dear Magister,
Thanks for writing back. I agree with you that any revisions may have been only to a few dates. If Lovecraft (and not Farnsworth Wright) revised the dates, he would have been forced to reread the story for any possible errors where the logic or timing of the story would have been affected by changes in dates. That would have given him a chance to make other changes as well. Lovecraft was notorious for not wanting to retype his work. A large-scale revision was probably out of the question. I agree with you also that de Camp almost becomes a character in his biography of Lovecraft, mostly as a contrast to him. He spends an awful lot of print on Lovecraft's flaws, too. I agree with de Camp, however, that it was probably more advantageous for him to try a biography than for August Derleth to do it. It's just too bad that Derleth's death was what brought about de Camp's biography. In any case, Lovecraft, just like any biographical subject, should be looked at critically. He should not have his flaws glossed over or the facts of his life (or literary estate) obscured. A friend or strong admirer (like Derleth) might have had that tendency. To his credit, de Camp wrote a disclaimer: "Whether I was right in so thinking [that he had an advantage over Derleth] is for the reader to judge." Of course more has come to light in the decades since de Camp's biography was published, but I give him credit for a first draft of the life of H.P. Lovecraft. I'm a stickler for careful notes and careful research, but I can overlook those problems with Lovecraft: A Biography for its better qualities. Thanks again. TH
By Terence Hanley on Biography and "The Call of Cthulhu"-Part 3 on 10/5/11

My original text copyright 2012 Terence E. Hanley

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