Tuesday, July 31, 2007

The Return of the Awful I

Moving on from - though perhaps tangentially related to - my last couple of posts dealing with religion, more news on Vermont's very own Lovecraftian horror, The Awful:

Mr. H.P. Albarelli recently contacted me, having been understandably offended by the sarcastic tone I took toward his article in the Northwest Vermont County Courier concerning the Awful. In any case, I requested details of the sources of the contested Lovecraft quotes. A protracted exhange then followed during which Mr. Albarelli clearly stated his position: that Lovecraft's involvement was peripheral to the whole matter. I countered this by arguing that his original article had strongly emphasised Lovecraft's role in the story of the Awful.

Mr. Albarelli did go on to state that the letters from which he quoted existed in a public archive (though at this point he did not include any additonal information about this archive). An implied accusation of my being a Lovecraft fanatic followed, which was fair comment, although the added insinuation that I had lost touch with reality because of my obsession with the letters smarted: indeed, a rather odd claim given that all I was trying to do was establish the existence of a letter and not that of a winged monster which supposedly haunts the wilds of Vermont...

Sarcasm aside, I must admit to being not entirely unsympathetic to Mr. Albarelli's claims and I certainly don't think he is involved in a purposeful or malicious hoax. Similarly my own intentions toward Mr. Albarelli are not malicious (though I hope he might find it in his heart to forgive me for the occasional dig I make at his expense!). Even so, an important epistemological issue underlies my somewhat dogged pursuit of this case: namely the manner in which Lovecraft's name is often deployed within contemporary occultures as a source of legitimicay. In fact, what one usually encounters in these instances is a kind of non-sequitur appeal to false authority (two fallacious arguments for the price of one).

In any case, I've decided to include herafter the full text of two of the later e-mails which I sent to Mr. Albarelli, with summaries of his replies. In fairness to Mr. Albarelli, please do bear in mind that what follows is my own biased account of the exchange:

Dear Mr. Alberelli,

The letters are of importance insofar as traceable sources are necessary to validate the claims that Lovecraft did go to Vermont to investigate 'the Awful' in 1925, and that the experience subsequently influenced his writing career - and that is all I am trying to establish here. A matter, as you say, of remaining grounded in reality.

My own experience is that Lovecraft has gained far greater recognition than you give credit for - both in North America and abroad (in France, for example, Lovecraft is considered the literary equal to Edgar Allen Poe). This was why I raised the issue of your mentioning Lovecraft in the first place - certainly on the few forums where I have seen your article discussed, the Lovecraft link seems to be one of the key talking points. In all honesty, for me this begs the following question: if you feel Lovecraft to be such a minor figure, why do you give him such a central
role in your account? I'm not asking you to respond to this; I'm simply indicating that this as a question which has been raised.

I'm guessing that the publicly accessible archive you speak of is the collection of Lovecraft's letters at John Hay Library, Providence R.I.? It would be most helpful if, in your update, you could provide exact dates of the letters in question, if possible with details as to their recipients?

Yours sincerely,

Justin Woodman

It turned out that Mr. Albarelli was not familiar with the John Hay collection. He did, however, say that more information about the Lovecraft sources would be appearing in a second article he was preparing about the Awful. In response I sent the following e-mail. To give some context to this, I was responding to Mr. Albarelli's claims that Lovecraft was a marginal literary figure and that it was doubtful (as I had earlier suggested) that he was considered the equal of Poe in French intellectual circles:

Dear Mr. Albarelli

I was not at all implying that you should not mention Lovecraft in your article, but mentioning him in relation to a matter that has escaped the attention of those of us interested in him as an important literary figure is something that is going to draw attention to your claims. As an aside, the fact of the matter is that Lovecraft is now a significant international literary figure - in the United Kingdom, for example, a review of his work have recently appeared in at least one major national
broadsheet newspaper; also the French (and international bestselling) author Michel Houllebecq recently published a lengthy essay on Lovecraft (introduced by Stephen King). Lovecraft has also been discussed by Gilles Deleuze, a French philosopher whose work has become internationally recognized since the 1990s. The list of French scholars and intellectuals who have come to recognize Lovecraft as a literary figure equal to Poe goes on. Millions of copies of Lovecraft’s work have, since the 1970s,
been made available in paperback editions; as well as being incredibly popular now in Europe and North America, I understand that Lovecraft has attracted growing audiences in Japan, South and Central America and Eastern Europe (indeed, the Russian president Putin was recently asked, jokingly, how he meant to deal with the return of Cthulhu).

In any case, I was wondering whether, prior to the publication of your second article, you would be willing to furnish me with the sources of the following quotes:

‘When H.P. Lovecraft returned to southern Vermont from Richford he told friends he was convinced that the Richford locals he had interviewed were "not in the least mistaken about what they had witnessed." Lovecraft later wrote, "The Awful became ample sustenance for my imagination" and "over time the creature became the basis for many of my own fictional inventions."’

If you do not wish to furnish the requested citations yourself, you mentioned in a previous e-mail that ‘The letters cited have been sitting in a publicly accessible archive for decades’ and also that the references in question were provided to an internet site months ago. Could you provide further details about the aforementioned archive and the internet site?

I’m almost beginning to feel sorry for being so tenacious about this, but it is simply that I cannot seem to trace any mention of ‘The Awful’ in the four volumes of Lovecraft’s published letters that cover his life from the period of 1925 until his death in 1937. I sincerely hope that you can understand why I’m so curious about this matter: if Lovecraft’s investigations into the Awful had such a profound effect on him, I have to ask why it isn’t something that he returns to time and time again in his letters (where he otherwise amply elaborates on the sources of his fictional ideas). I think that there is also a secondary issue here in that Lovecraft was an avowed rationalist, atheist and mechanistic materialist - a point he reiterates time and time again in his letters, and a viewpoint which he held from a very young age until his death. Lovecraft certainly was familiar with the writings of people like Charles Fort, but nowhere does he seem to intimate any interest of belief in
cryptozoology, the supernatural or other ‘Fortean’ phenomena - other than to publicly debunk them.

Also, the renowned scholar and biographer of Lovecraft S.T. Joshi, who is the person most familiar with the collection of Lovecraft’s letters at John Hay library, fails to make any mention of Lovecraft’s trip to Vermont in 1925 or of the influence of the Awful on Lovecraft’s writing in 680+ pages of his carefully documented and rigorously researched biography of Lovecraft (‘H.P. Lovecraft: A Life). Given the wealth of information now available about Lovecraft’s life, I hope you can understand my scepticism regarding your claims - it’s simply that this matter has not (to my knowledge) been mentioned before in any of Lovecraft’s published writings.

Another of the reasons why I so curious about these claims is because at least one individual has already used your article to make (what I feel to be) spurious on-line statements about Lovecraft - statements to the effect that Lovecraft whole-heartedly supported a belief in the existence of a range of occult, Fortean, cryptozoological, ufological and supernaturalist phenomena (again, a claim that is unsupported in Lovecraft’s published letters and essays). Also - a fact you may not be aware of - your article was cited in a recent edition of the The Fortean
Times (which has a readership in the UK of, I believe, around 100,000; I also know that it is published in a North American edition). As such, the claims found in your article will potentially have acquired a larger readership than, perhaps, you intended. Of course you cannot help how some people have interpreted the information contained in your article once published. However, the problem here is that people seem to be viewing this claim uncritically simply because Lovecraft’s name is invoked. This is why I feel it so important that the sources of the quotes/claims are
made available.

Yours sincerely,

Justin Woodman

Mr Albarelli then informed me that the letters from which he quoted were not in the public domain, but did in fact reside in the hands of two individuals in Vermont (one of which is a minister). Further to this, he told me that more information regarding the Awful was to be found in a) the archives of a Richford newspaper, and that possible one of the contentious Lovecraft quotes could also be found in the journal of the Masonic Lodge 9 based in Richford, Vermont.
Hopefully more news regarding the sources of the alleged Lovecraft quotes will be made available when Mr. Albarelli returns to the matter of the Awful in his next article. In the mean time, I propose to do a bit of background research into the journals of the Richford Masonic Lodge.

Understandably the individuals' possessing the Lovecraft letters were not named. This does, however, mean that clear and unambiguous evidence of Lovecraft's alleged involvement in the affair of the Awful cannot be ascertained (at least to my satisfaction). In light of which, the weight of evidence still lies with what Lovecraft himself has said and which is in the public domain, and which also supports his well-documented skepticism of things Fortean, and certainly offers no suggestion whatsoever that he either investigated the Awful in 1925 or that his alleged investigation of said beast profoundly influenced his weird fiction.

At this point Mr. Albarelli seems to have given up the ghost with the Lovecraft connection, informing me that henceforth the story of the Awful would stand on its own two (cloven? webbed?) feet without Lovecraft's aid. To reiterate - and in fairness to him - I fully believe that Mr. Albarelli is quite genuine about his interest in and pursuit of the Awful, and I'm quite prepared to believe that he has seen letters purporting to be from Lovecraft. Indeed, there is something about the style of the contested quotes that rings true to my ear (which is not to say that Lovecraft's style isn't easily copied), so it could well be that the letters (assuming they are real) are also genuine Lovecraft. If this is the case, then the context of the quotes needs to be assessed. Even if Lovecraft himself made these statements, the Old Gent was prone to the occasional joking turn of phrase. This certainly wouldn't be the first time that Lovecraft's own words have been taken out of context by Forteans, esotericists et al.

Anyway must dash now, but some additional commentary on this - regarding sites that have uncritically assumed Lovecraft's involvement in the tale of the Awful to be genuine - in a few days.

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