Friday, November 8, 2019

Lovecraft on Charles Williams

So, here's what H. P. Lovecraft had to say after reading two Charles Williams novels, WAR IN HEAVEN and MANY DIMENSIONS, in October of 1934.

Hail, Klarkash-Ton! Under separate cover I'm forwarding Koenig's two Williams books, & I'll be anxious to know what you think of 'em. Essentially, they are not horror literature but philosophic allegory. Direct reproduction of the texture of life & the substance of moods is not the author's object. He is trying to illustrate human nature through symbols & turns of idea which possess significance for those taking a traditional or orthodox view of man's cosmic bearings. It isn't our kind of stuff—for Williams isn't seeking to express the indefinable feeling experienced by man in confronting the unknown. His characters react to the symbolic & patterned marvels according to certain traditional philosophic concepts—not in the natural, irregular fashion of actual life. To get a full-sized kick from this stuff one must take seriously the orthodox view of cosmic organisation. However—I enjoyed the tales objectively, & fancy you will. Send them on to Comte d'Erlette when you're through with them. I doubt if Rimel or Dwyer would care for them. What do you think?  . . . 
Autumn chill is curtailing my outdoor sessions, but the scenery is exquisite.
Yrs for the Stone of Suleiman—Ech-Pi-El. 

DAWNWARD SPIRE, LONELY HILL: THE LETTERS OF H. P. LOVECRAFT AND CLARK ASHTON SMITH, ed. David E. Schultz and S. T. Joshi (Hippocampus Press, 2017). page 574

Note: Lovecraft was fond of giving his friends slightly facetious nicknames.
Klarkash-Ton = Clark Ashton Smith, the recipient of this letter
le Comte d'Erlette = August Derleth
Ech-Pi-El = HPL, or Lovecraft himself
Rimel and Dwyer were minor members of Lovecraft's circle

Koenig = H. C. Koenig, who had recently gotten in touch with Lovecraft, apparently as part of his campaign to spread the word about the almost totally forgotten Wm Hope Hodgson.

Despite enjoying him as a good read, Lovecraft left Williams out of SUPERNATURAL HORROR IN LITERATURE, his monograph surveying the field, which he was expanding and revising at the time. Doubtless Williams did not make the final cut because Lovecraft had concluded that CW was really not a horror writer at all and also that only committed Xians wd fully appreciate these novels (Lovecraft himself was an atheist and nihilist).

An Alternate Text: 
While typing up the passage from Lovecraft's letter, I belatedly thought to check to see if Joshi had anything to say about this in his monumental two-volume thousand-plus page biography of HPL, I AM PROVIDENCE (2010). Not only does he include the incident, but I had marked the page (Vol. II p. 878) on March 1st 2012,* only to completely forget about it in the intervening years. But it still seems worthwhile to share the DAWNWARD SPIRE text because the 2010 Joshi text both (a) abridges the letter without fully noting where material has been left out and (b) includes words and phrases not found in the 2017 Schultz-Joshi text.

For example, Joshi's 2010 text ends with the sentence

"To get a full-sized kick from this stuff one must take seriously the orthodox view of cosmic organisation--which is rather impossible today."

The closing phrase (which I've highlighted here for emphasis) is altogether absent in the 2017 Schultz-Joshi version. Determining which of the two texts more accurately represents what Lovecraft wrote wd require consultation with the original manuscript of this letter, presumably now in the Lovecraft papers at Brown University.

--John R.

*it was a Thursday

UPDATE (November 11th):
--Thanks to a comment by Magister it's now clear that these are two separate texts: (1) Lovecraft's letter to Smith and (2) Lovecraft's letter to Derleth, one of which is a handwritten copy, by Lovecraft, of the other, with some variations of phrasing. So both are authentic. Good to know.


Magister said...

Check the reference in I Am Providence before assuming a mistake has been made. The quotation on p. 878 comes from a letter to August Derleth, not Clark Ashton Smith, which you will find on pp. 662-663 of Essential Solitude.

John D. Rateliff said...

Dear M.

I see: there are two texts, one to Smith (which I quoted) and a copy of it by Lovecraft with variants to Derleth (which I gave as an alternate). So both are genuine.
Thanks for the clarification.

--John R.