Friday, August 7, 2020

Earl Peirce, Jr.-Aside No. 4

Peirces in New England & A Pierce in Lovecraft

Earl Peirce's family is an ancient one in America. The first among them was born only a dozen short years after Queen Elizabeth I had died and while William Shakespeare still walked the earth. Arriving in what is now Massachusetts before the middle of the seventeenth century, the first American Peirce in Earl Peirce's line served in Capt. Myles Standish's Plymouth Colony militia. Promoted to captain himself, he served during King Philip's War only to fall victim to it. What is believed to be the oldest veteran's memorial in the United States marks the place where Capt. Peirce (as the story goes) and eight of his compatriots perished. The site, known as Nine Men's Misery, is located in Rhode Island, not far north of Providence and well within Lovecraft country.

The Peirce name is old, too. There were Anglo-Saxon Peirces and Norman French Peirces in England during the Middle Ages. The name itself refers to the apostle Peter and has many variants, including Pierce, Peirse, and Pearse. College English students will remember Piers Plowman, Piers being another variant. Here I'm using the spelling that Earl Peirce, Jr., and his family used and one that is still used by Peirces throughout New England. The name is or was pronounced Purse (possibly also as Parse). Robert Frost let us know that in his poem "New Hampshire" (a state that he personified as she):
She had one President. (Pronounce him Purse,
And make the most of it for better or worse.
He's your one chance to score against the state.)
"New Hampshire" was published in book form in 1923, the same year that Weird Tales began. 

Like the Peirces, the family of H.P. Lovecraft was ancient in America, but only on his mother's side. There were Phillips and Whipples in Rhode Island and Providence Plantations in the seventeenth century. The Lovecrafts were comparative latecomers, arriving in the United States only in the Early National Period, in the same century in which H.P. Lovecraft (1890-1937) was born.

Lovecraft was of course a lover of all things New England. He would have been well acquainted with the Peirce/Pierce name, and he included it in one of his most well-known and popular stories, "The Colour Out of Space" (Amazing Stories, Mar. 1927). Lovecraft is supposed to have counted it his favorite among his own stories.

"The Colour Out of Space" is a strange and unsettling story of an inexplicable alien presence that fell to earth in the country west of fictional Arkham, Massachusetts. The time was in the past--"the strange days" as the locals call it. The place, now known as "the blasted heath," was on the farm of the late Nahum Gardner. The story of those "strange days" is recounted to the unnamed narrator by an old man who was a neighbor of Nahum Gardner. His name is Ammi Pierce. Now that I think about it, he reminds me of the Once-ler from The Lorax.

Again, the story of "The Colour Out of Space" is told in the present, i.e., in the late 1920s, but "the strange days" were in the past. They began in June 1882 when a meteorite fell on the Gardner farm. Only at harvest time did Nahum Gardner realize that his entire crop had been contaminated, "that the meteorite had poisoned the soil." That was only the beginning of his and his family's travails, told in increasingly horrifying detail by Ammi Pierce, who remembers it all as if it were yesterday, as well he might.

I have written about "The Colour Out of Space" before. Click here to read my posting of October 19, 2015.

Lovecraft was an amateur astronomer and a science-minded materialist. He made it a point to include real occurrences in his stories, I suppose to build a sense of verisimilitude. In 1882, there was a very bright comet in the skies of the Southern Hemisphere. Called the Great Comet of 1882, it was first observed in September, not in June. Perhaps the meteorite of June 1882 was a harbinger of the later comet, an offshoot that brought disease and death to earth, as comets do. I don't plan these things, but I wrote about all of this not very long ago. Click here for more reading on comets, disease, and death.

Now, finally, to the last part of the Earl Peirce, Jr., story.

Virgil Finlay's illustration for "The Colour Out of Space" by H.P. Lovecraft, from Famous Fantastic Mysteries, October 1941.

Original text copyright 2020 Terence E. Hanley

No comments:

Post a Comment