Borderline Weirdists: Howard, Smith, Merritt - H. P. Lovecraft and His Influence - Volume 2: The Twentieth and Twenty-first Centuries

Unutterable Horror - A History of Supernatural Fiction - S. T. Joshi 2014

Borderline Weirdists: Howard, Smith, Merritt
H. P. Lovecraft and His Influence
Volume 2: The Twentieth and Twenty-first Centuries

The two authors most closely associated with Lovecraft—as equals rather than as disciples—are Clark Ashton Smith (1893—1961) and Robert E. Howard (1906—1936). Although both published extensively in Weird Tales, much of their work falls outside the domain of supernatural fiction as narrowly conceived, although it may be encompassed by the broader rubric of weird fiction. In particular, Smith developed from Dunsany and others the mode of imaginary-world fantasy, while Howard—also possibly picking up hints from Dunsany (“The Sword of Welleran”) but more likely inspired by his own conflicted psychological and sociocultural stance—was a virtual pioneer in the subgenre of heroic fantasy, in which larger-than-life figures, chiefly historical, battle foes both natural and supernatural.

Although he was the younger man, Howard’s work is worth treating first, since he began publishing fiction at a very early age, a few years before Smith entered into the most representative phase of his fiction writing. Some caveats are in order in discussing Howard, since he has inspired a small cadre of overenthusiastic fans and scholars who appear to vaunt his work far above its merits (they feel, for example, that if Lovecraft is deserving of a Library of America volume, Howard is also, in spite of the substantial gulf in quality, substance, and influence between the two writers’ work) and who therefore take any criticism of their idol with hostility and umbrage. Many of them also seem animated by the same aggressiveness that can be found in Howard’s own fiction and letters—the latter of which regale us with vivid accounts of the antics of various gunmen of the old West, the titanic struggles of college football teams, and so forth. Howard, as a native of Texas and scion of pioneers who helped to settle that region, appears to have harboured something of a grudge against what he perceived to be effete East Coast (or European) intellectualism and civilisation, to the degree that he prized the freedom and even the violence of the frontiersman—an attitude that gradually metamorphosed into an admiration for barbarians struggling against the dominance of Romans and other symbols of culture and learning.

These views account for Howard’s invention of such heroes as King Kull (a warrior in the ancient land of Valusia), Bran Mak Morn (a Pict battling the Romans in Britain), Solomon Kane (a seventeenth-century Puritan who stumbles upon various horrors in his quest to spread his faith), and Conan of Cimmeria, Howard’s preeminent embodiment of the virtues of barbarism. While it is true that in some cases these heroes encounter supernatural entities in the course of their peregrinations, the emphasis is so much on physical conflict—whether it be set battles between hordes of barbarians against civilised armies or single combat with some formidable foe—that the supernatural element often fades into insignificance. This might also be said for an interesting subset of tales, chiefly written late in his short life, about his native Texas.

When Howard did treat supernatural themes in relative purity, without the infusion of a heroic fantasy element, the result was oftentimes flat and conventional. Hence, “In the Forest of Villefère” (1925) is a routine werewolf story. “Wolfshead” (1926) is also a werewolf story, but here Howard provides a preposterous “origin of species” of werewolves in which the spirit of good has presumably entered man and the spirit of evil into animals; accordingly, werewolves team up with demons to wreak vengeance on their moral betters. “Rattle of Bones” (1929) uninterestingly displays a skeleton of a wizard that revives to avenge his death. In “The Noseless Horror” an Egyptian mummy (one, however, that proves to be only ten years old) comes to life.

“Pigeons from Hell” (1938) is believed by many to be Howard’s best tale of supernatural horror, but it is far less imaginatively evocative and effectively written than Lovecraft’s best tales. Here we are somewhere in the South, where a character speaks of the horrors of witchcraft and voodoo in the region:

“Voodoo!” he muttered. “I’d forgotten about that—I never could think of black magic in connection with the South. To me witchcraft was always associated with old crooked streets in waterfront towns, overhung by gabled roofs that were old when they were hanging witches in Salem; dark musty alleys where black cats and other things might steal at night. Witchcraft always meant the old towns of New England, to me—but all this is more terrible than any New England legend—these somber pines, old deserted houses, lost plantations, mysterious black people, old tales of madness and horror—God, what frightful, ancient terrors there are on this continent fools call ’young’!” (H 438)

In the end, we are introduced to the concept of the zuvembie—a female zombie in the form of a mulatto servant who seeks vengeance upon her masters. The story is not entirely ineffective in etching the society of the post-slavery South, but as a horror tale it fails to deliver an effective punch.

Two other stories have somewhat greater merit. “The Cairn on the Headland” (1933) takes us to Ireland, where the protagonist, James O’Brien, meets none other than Odin, who takes the form of a man. It turns out that Odin is buried under a cairn that O’Brien has come upon, and his resurrection is impressively awesome:

Out of the cairn he rose, and the northern lights played terribly about him. And the Gray Man changed and altered in horrific transmutation. The human features faded like a fading mask; the armor fell from his body and crumbled to dust as it fell; and the fiendish spirit of ice and frost and darkness that the sons of the North deified as Odin, stood up nakedly and terribly in the stars. About his grisly head played lightnings and the shuddering gleams of the aurora. His towering anthropomorphic form was dark as shadow and gleaming as ice; his horrible crest reared colossally against the vaulting arch of the sky. (H 238)

A much more modest specimen, “Old Garfield’s Heart” (1933), is the simple but powerful tale of a man who, suffering an injury, is treated by a mysterious Indian and ends up never growing older; when he dies, his heart keeps on beating.

The stories that Howard wrote partially under Lovecraft’s influence—they first came in touch in 1930, although Howard was reading Lovecraft’s work in Weird Tales almost from the beginning and wrote a letter to the editor in praise of “The Call of Cthulhu”—are also a mixed bag. “The Children of the Night” (1931) drops the names of various Lovecraftian names, but is concerned with a man who, by hereditary memory, goes back in time into the body of a remote ancestor in Pictish times. “The Black Stone” (1931) displays a reasonably effective use of Lovecraftian elements, dealing with a man who stumbles upon a monolith in Hungary and dreams of a hideous toadlike monster resting upon it.

“The Fire of Asshurbanipal” (1936) is perhaps Howard’s most successful attempt to fuse his own swashbuckling, action-adventure style with the Lovecraftian idiom. Set in the Middle East, the tale seems to promise a more than glancing treatment of Lovecraft’s motifs when the protagonists—the American Steve Clarney and some Arab compatriots—come upon an ancient deserted city and “believed it to be the ancient, ancient City of Evil spoken of in the Necronomicon of the mad Arab Alhazred—the city of the dead on which an ancient curse rested” (H 45). The curse in question refers to a doom that would be activated if a valuable gem is removed from the hand of a skeleton clutching it. An Arab tells of an ancient magician, Xuthltan, who cried out “on the forgotten gods, Cthulhu and Koth and Yog-Sothoth” (H 472), and laid the curse. Steve in fact takes up the gem, whereupon, from a “hideous black well,” an “Invader from Outer Gulfs and far black reaches of cosmic being” (H 474) emerges. All this is quite effective, and represents Howard’s most able use of Lovecraftian motifs—but they are expressed in his own idiom, with fast-paced action and plenty of fighting. On the whole, however, Lovecraftian cosmicism does not seem to have come naturally to Howard, and he was wise to adhere to his own chosen form of heroic fantasy in the bulk of his tales.

Of the tales that form loosely connected cycles, the Solomon Kane stories seem to have the greatest supernatural content. Howard’s portrayal of this Puritan swordsman is, however, highly implausible and contrived; but at least he makes no attempt to imitate seventeenth-century diction, thereby avoiding the colossal blunders that Hodgson made in The Night Land. For some reason, Kane finds himself repeatedly in Africa, encountering various instances of African magic but also allowing Howard to indulge in repulsive racism. The first Solomon Kane story, “Red Shadows” (1928), is about wizardry by a ju-ju man, N’Longa. This character recurs in several other stories, such as “The Hills of the Dead” (1930), where Kane and N’Longa encounter an entire city of vampires and, by a combination of fisticuffs and fire, defeat them. In “The Moon of Skulls” (1930) Kane seeks “the vampire queen of Negari” (K 104); but in the end the story proves to be a non-supernatural save-the-damsel adventure story, as Kane strives (and, of course, succeeds) in rescuing a white woman from being the offered as a virgin sacrifice. In “Wings of the Night” (1932) Kane, again in Africa, encounters winged creatures that turn out to be the harpies of Greek myth.

Racism is also at the fore in Howard’s tales of old and contemporary Texas. Consider “The Shadow of the Beast,” where we are told: “When a negro like him sets his mind on a white girl, nothing but death can stop him” (H 96). Sure enough, the negro is killed in a deserted house, but the white hero also encounters (curiously) the ghost of a gorilla who had been killed there twenty years earlier. In the late “Black Canaan” (1936), “swamp niggers” (H 383) are killing white men. Well, that can’t be allowed to stand, so a band of whites seek to kill the blacks’ leader, a “conjer man” whose “aim [is] to kill all de white filks in Canaan” (H 386). A sorceress is somehow also involved.

The Bran Mak Morn stories are chiefly tales of battles between the Picts and the Romans, but in “Worms of the Earth” (1932) we are introduced to hideous creatures dwelling on the underside of civilisation: “The worms of the earth! Thousands of vermin digging like moles far below the castle, burrowing away the foundations—gods, the land must be honeycombed with tunnels and caverns—these creatures were even less human than he had thought—what ghastly shapes of darkness had he invoked to his aid?” (H 265). These worms are apparently analogous to the “little people” of Machen. This story is a powerful and haunting weird tale and may in fact be the pinnacle of Howard’s work in supernatural horror.

The Conan stories also contain some supernatural creatures and episodes—a female vampire in “The Hour of the Dragon” (1932), an extraterrestrial entity in “The Tower of the Elephant” (1933), a witch in “A Witch Shall Be Born” (1934)—but, like the King Kull stories, these narratives are so remote in time and so overshadowed by the swordplay that is Howard’s chief focus that the element of terror does not always emerge as potently as it might. This is not meant as a criticism of Howard’s work, but merely as an explanation for why he does not, and should not, occupy as high a place as his supporters wish in the realm of supernatural horror.

The same could be said of Clark Ashton Smith, who was also led by temperament—and, perhaps, a desire not to be seen merely as Lovecraft’s disciple or imitator—to write tales very different from Lovecraft’s, in which the element of pure supernaturalism is also muted. Smith gained early celebrity for a spectacular volume of weird poetry, The Star-Treader and Other Poems (1912), written largely under the tutelage of George Sterling; several other volumes cemented Smith’s reputation as a poet, at least in his native California. He came in touch with Lovecraft as early as 1922, but it was not until around 1929 that he began writing weird tales in earnest. (He had written some Arabian Nights tales as early as 1910, but these amount to little.)

Smith also has a small legion of devotees and scholars who are seeking to lift him out of Lovecraft’s shadow—an effort that could easily succeed if Smith’s brilliant poetry is taken into consideration, but one that is more difficult of accomplishment in regard to his fantasy fiction, which was manifestly written, if not under Lovecraft’s direct influence, at least from Lovecraft’s example. Smith wrote a remarkable number of tales in a short period of time: from 1929 to 1935 he wrote well over a hundred stories of horror, science fiction, and fantasy, published in Weird Tales, Wonder Stories, and other pulps. Smith’s chief motivating factor in writing these tales, however, was not abstract aestheticism but the practical need to support himself and his ailing parents, so that he was much more willing to compromise to editors’ demands for revision and, frankly, to write tales specifically suited for the markets he sought to enter. As a result, many of his tales are marred by haste, weak plots, and stereotyped characters.

The great majority of Smith’s stories fall into the realms of fantasy and science fiction, hence are not of direct relevance to the field of supernatural fiction. As with Robert E. Howard, Smith’s stories can largely be grouped in loose subclasses—but rather than being focused on an heroic protagonist, they are generally classed by location: the mediaeval French province of Averoigne (a name clearly modelled on that of the actual region of Auvergne); Hyperborea, a land in the far north in the remote ages of the earth; Zothique, a continent of the far future; Atlantis, the sunken continent in the Atlantic; Mars and Xiccarph, planets near and remote from the earth; and so forth. Some of the stories that do not fall into these classes are set in the objectively real world, several of them in Smith’s native California.

From the point of view of abstract quality, the Zothique stories are probably the pinnacle of Smith’s fiction-writing; from the point of view of relevance to supernatural fiction, the Averoigne stories come to the fore, but regrettably they are among the poorest of Smith’s tales, being generally routine accounts of vampires, lamias, and the like. “The End of the Story” (1929) is of somewhat greater interest. (In this section, Smith’s tales are dated by date of composition, not publication.) Here we are introduced to the castle of Fausseflammes, where a monk from the nearby monastery of Périgon meets a seductive lamia, Nycea; and although she is routed by the use of holy water, the monk laments the loss of this symbol of paganism and sexuality and resolves to return to her. Other tales of Averoigne are of similar or lesser interest. In “The Maker of Gargoyles” (1931), demons who are marauding the province prove to be gargoyles manufactured by Blaise Reynard; but the climax of the tale is telegraphed almost from the beginning. “The Beast of Averoigne” (1932) tells of a monster who eats the marrow of people and animals; it transpires (implausibly) that the beast is from outer space, even though he occupied the body of an abbot during his depredations.

Smith set a number of his earlier stories in California, and in some cases the local colour is effective, as in “The Ninth Skeleton” (1928), although this story is otherwise sadly anticlimactic; or “The Devotee of Evil” (1930), where a character posits “a monistic evil, which is the source of all death, deterioration, imperfection, pain, sorrow, madness and disease” (1.156). It is not entirely clear what this is supposed to mean, but the character manages to create a machine that concentrates the vibrations of evil, leading to bizarre sensations:

… there surged upon me an intolerable depression, together with a multitude of sensations which I despair of conveying in language. My very sense of space was distorted and deformed, as if some unknown dimension had somehow been mingled with ours. There was a feeling of dreadful and measureless descent, as if the floor were sinking beneath me into some nether pit; and I seemed to pass beyond the room in a torrent of swirling, hallucinative images, visible but invisible, felt but intangible, and more awful, more accurst than that hurricane of lost souls beheld by Dante. (1.159)

This is a reasonably interesting attempt to fuse supernaturalism (or perhaps even science fiction) with psychological horror. In the end, the inventor becomes an ebon statue.

“The Face by the River” (1930) fuses a Californian setting with a rare use (for Smith) of purely psychological horror, as a man who has strangled his lover and thrown her into a river continually sees her face in the river, finally drowning himself. “Genius Loci” (1932) does not have an explicitly Californian setting, but is one of Smith’s more effective supernatural tales. Here a man named Amberville becomes fascinated with a sedgy meadow near his home, thinking it a locus of evil. Is it, indeed, a kind of “vampire” (4.164)? Insidiously, the meadow seems to engender the death of Amberville and his fiancée, apparently absorbing their lifeforce. For one of the rare times in Smith’s fiction, there is genuine psychological analysis of a character’s shifting reactions as he confronts the bizarre.

“The Secret of the Cairn” (1932; published as “The Light from Beyond”) also has good realistic description of the Sierra foothills where the protagonist (like Smith) lives, before veering off into science fiction. The same could be said for one of Smith’s great imaginative triumphs, “The City of the Singing Flame” (1931). It is, indeed, surprising that Smith wrote as many realistic tales as he did, since he himself confessed in a letter to Lovecraft that he was “far happier when I can create everything in a story” (Selected Letters 108)—a prototypical act of fantasy.

Indeed, some of Smith’s most effective tales of terror are those in which he mingles quasi-supernaturalism with fantasy or science fiction (the latter, given Smith’s relative lack of interest or training in science, should probably be referred to more accurately as science fantasy). The preeminent instance here is “The Vaults of Yoh-Vombis” (1931), ostensibly set on Mars. This story may be nothing but a monster tale, but some of its touches are undeniably effective, as when the nebulous entity—in the shape of a hood or cowl—descends upon a hapless human victim:

Cleaving closely as a tightened cloth, the thing enfolded Octave’s hair and brow and eyes, and he shrieked wildly, with incoherent pleas for help, and tore with frantic fingers at the cowl, but failed to loosen it. Then his cries began to mount in a mad crescendo of agony, as if beneath some instrument of infernal torture; and he danced and capered blindly about the vault, eluding us with strange celerity as we all sprang forward in an effort to reach him and release him from his weird incumbrance. The whole happening was mysterious as a nightmare; but the thing that had fallen on his head was plainly some unclassified form of Martian life, which, contrary to all the known laws of science, had survived in those primordial catacombs. (3.88)

Smith’s tales derived directly from Lovecraft are not among his stellar compositions. The most clearly Lovecraftian, “The Return of the Sorcerer” (1931), is nothing but an elementary revenant tale in which the dismembered corpse of the wizard Helman Carnby comes back to exact vengeance on his brother and murderer, John. Smith invented the god Tsathoggua in “The Tale of Satampra Zeiros” (1929), but the fantastic setting of the tale (it is part of Smith’s Hyperborea cycle) lessens the supernatural effect of the hideous toad-god. Much superior is “Ubbo-Sathla” (1933), a brilliant tale of regression, in which a man of the modern world, Paul Tregardis, somehow goes back in time to inhabit a succession of increasingly remote human and animal forms until he finally unites with Ubbo-Sathla, “a mass without head or members, spawning the gray, formless efts of the prime and the grisly prototypes of terrene life” (3.223). Lovecraft was correct in believing that Smith felt the sense of the cosmic as keenly as he himself did—something spectacularly evident in his early poetry, as we shall presently see.

Smith’s vocabulary—even more esoteric than Lovecraft’s—has been criticised as needlessly recherché, but this criticism again stems from an outmoded belief that Hemingwayesque spareness is the only manner in which prose should be written. Smith himself articulated a different aesthetic: “My own conscious ideal has been to delude the reader into accepting an impossibility, or series of impossibilities, by means of a sort of verbal black magic, in the achievement of which I make use of prose-rhythm, metaphor, simile, tone-color, counter-point, and other stylistic resources, like a sort of incantation” (Selected Letters 126). Whether Smith was actually effective in his use of such methods is a legitimate inquiry; but that he adopted them with a full realisation of their emotive effects cannot be denied.

It would be highly misleading to regard A. Merritt (1884—1943) as anything approaching an imitator or disciple of Lovecraft, or even a close colleague, although they did become acquainted in the 1930s. Merritt, of course, began his literary career some years before Lovecraft and gained celebrity with a remarkable novelette, “The Moon Pool” (All-Story Weekly, 22 June 1918), that made him a fixture with the Munsey magazines and, ultimately, one of the highest-paid pulpsmiths of his time. Set in the Pacific, “The Moon Pool” tells a simple story of a monster uncovered by a scientific expedition—but that monster is of a highly unusual sort that testifies to the vibrancy of Merritt’s early imagination. A fusion of radiant, swirling globes, the entity (called the Dweller) eventually absorbs the head of the expedition:

At the port-hole was a radiance; swirls and spirals of living white cold fire. It poured into the cabin and it was filled with dancing motes of light, and over the radiant core of it shone seven little lights like tiny moons. It gathered Throckmartin to it. Light pulsed through and from him. I saw his skin turn to a translucent, shimmering whiteness like illumined porcelain. His face became unrecognizable, inhuman with the monstrous twin expressions. (173)

This is not unlike Lovecraft’s later conception of the colour out of space, and the story can also be shown to have exercised a significant influence on “The Call of Cthulhu.”

But Merritt, lured by the sirens’ song of popularity and big money, corrupted his imagination and became a highly talented hack. His first catastrophic act was to purge “The Moon Pool” of precisely its most interesting features and stretch it out into a novel, The Moon Pool (1919). Subsequent works catered to popular tastes in ways that Lovecraft refused to do: valiant human heroes combating various evil figures or cults, cliffhanger plots, contrived happy endings, and a frequent inclusion of an adventitious romance element.

But a large reason for the general failure of Merritt’s work to retain the allegiance of subsequent generations of readers and critics is his rather curious melding of a number of genres, oftentimes in somewhat haphazard fashion: supernatural horror, fantasy, science fiction, even the detective story. Because Merritt worked adequately but not brilliantly in all these genres, his work ultimately fell on deaf ears.

The majority of Merritt’s novels—almost all of which were serialised in the Munsey magazines before appearing in book form—begin in the objectively real world before departing into a never-never-land of fantasy that comes close to thrusting them into the subgenre of the lost race novel. This applies even in the case of Dwellers in the Mirage (1932), which some critics have plausibly seen as an homage to Lovecraft, specifically in its depiction of the monster-god Khalk’ru, a “Black Octopus” (22) that will one day rise and destroy the world—a fairly obvious allusion to Cthulhu. But the terror of this creature is muted by the fact that the narrative veers off from its initial setting in central Asia to a valley (evidently in Alaska) that is reached by descending through a mirage—an act that shifts the work from the supernatural to fantasy, even though a pseudo-scientific explanation of the mirage is later offered. This novel, like so many of Merritt’s, is weakened by a feeble romance element that occupies far too much of the narrative.

Perhaps Merritt’s greatest imaginative triumph occurs in The Metal Monster, which exists in three very different forms: the initial serialisation in the Argosy (1920), another serialisation in Science and Invention (1927), and the book appearance (1946). It is arguable that the first is the best, in spite of its immense length. As Lovecraft once noted, it is a highly provocative attempt to imagine a life-form entirely separate from the carbon-based entities known to our world:

The height of fifty tall men it rose; towering upon four slender, stilt-like legs made up of alternate spiked six-foot block and ball. These spidery legs supported a huge cylindrical body, from the top of which a quintet of the girdered cubes, each, I estimated, twenty feet long, abruptly thrust themselves.

They radiated like a five-pointed star and over their length, swarming out of the body like bees from a hive, flashed scores of spheres and smaller blocks. With the same vertiginous rapidity that marked all the Protean changes of the Things while in combination, these clustered at the ends of the girders, shifted—at each end was now a monstrous thirty-foot wheel, their hubs the globular clusters, their spokes the cubes and their rims great, tetrahedron-tipped spheres! (79—80)

But Merritt’s continual tinkering with the novel bespeaks his dissatisfaction with it, and in the end none of the versions is without flaws.