Brattleboro Days, Yuggoth Nights

An Inter­view with Howard P. Love­craft
(as uncov­ered by Nick Mamatas)

I spent about eigh­teen months in Brat­tle­boro, Ver­mont in the mid­dle of the last decade.  I learned a lot of things, mostly about myself. For one thing: Brat­tle­boro is a great small town. For another: I dis­like small towns, even the ones with more book­stores than traf­fic lights. But I did love the book­stores, espe­cially a used paper­back house called Bas­kets Bookstore/Paperback Palace.  Huge hor­ror and romance sec­tions — Sher­wood, the owner, laughed when I chris­tened the romance sec­tion “The Pink Bomb.”

Most paper­backs were cheap enough to be pur­chasable by the bas­ket, which was per­fect for the long win­ter nights, but some of the items for sale were quite a bit rarer.  One day he handed me a post­card sent between H.P. Love­craft and Arthur H. Good­e­nough, an ama­teur press enthu­si­ast liv­ing near Brat­tle­boro. Good­e­nough isn’t talked about much today, but Brat­tle­boro is still full of Good­e­nough — there’s a road named for the fam­ily (or was the fam­ily named for the road?), a trash removal firm, you name it.

Love­craft was acquainted with Good­e­nough, and Lovecraft’s  vis­its to Good­e­nough in Ver­mont in 1927 and 1928 are the basis of his won­der­ful nov­el­ette “The Whis­perer in Dark­ness.” After the story was pub­lished in Weird Tales, Good­e­nough sent Love­craft a con­grat­u­la­tory card, and also asked the author a cou­ple of ques­tions. Rather than respond­ing with a card or let­ter of his own, Love­craft wrote the answers in a tiny hand and then appar­ently gave the card to Vrest Orton — a book­man and even­tual founder of The Ver­mont County Store — who returned the card to Good­e­nough per­son­ally dur­ing a trip to the Green Moun­tain State. Then Good­e­nough sent the card back to Love­craft again, with follow-up ques­tions writ­ten in a nearly micro­scopic hand. I sup­pose he knew the local post­mas­ter, and was able to get the card back into the mail sys­tem with­out a prob­lem. Amaz­ingly, Love­craft man­aged to fit the answers to the ques­tions on the post­card in an even smaller hand. Sher­wood told me that he’d guessed that Love­craft used a mag­ni­fy­ing glass and a sewing nee­dle dipped in ink. Here’s an odd thing; Sher­wood had found the post­card at an estate sale. It had been pro­tected from the ele­ments because it had been used as a book­mark in a 1935 num­ber of The Rev­e­la­tor, and that num­ber was a spe­cial issue ded­i­cated to the “gothic tales” of Isak Dinesen.

I bought the card and kept it with me for years — I moved to Boston, and then to Cal­i­for­nia.  Only recently have I been able to spare the time to closely exam­ine and tran­scribe the post­card. It took a few weeks. Lovecraft’s hand­writ­ing was dif­fi­cult to read in the best of times, as I learned in 2007 when writer Brian Even­son took me and my friend Geof­frey Good­win to the library at Brown Uni­ver­sity to check out some of Lovecraft’s papers. If any­thing, Goodenough’s pen­man­ship is even worse, espe­cially in the last unan­swered round of ques­tions. There are a few ink splat­ters on the post­card as well, but only one seems pur­pose­ful, as I make note of below. I took the card to work and abused my pho­to­copy and scan­ner priv­i­leges to blow up sec­tions of the card, then turn them into a series of PDFs. I then zoomed in on the PDFs as much as I could, to turn the tiny let­ters into great abstract shapes, to bet­ter see what we would call “kern­ing” if the text had been typset. To deci­pher this post­card, I not only had to read between the lines, as it were, but I had to make sure I was prop­erly read­ing between the letters.

My friend Raphael is Google’s res­i­dent font expert and I showed him the PDFs. Raph’s PhD the­sis is on imag­ing and halfton­ing over at the Uni­ver­sity of Cal­i­for­nia at Berke­ley, and he was able to use his research to cob­ble together a pro­gram to “draw” my blow-ups in a way that made the let­ters more leg­i­ble. It was still a game of refrig­er­a­tor poetry for a while, as the let­ters, words, and sen­tences the com­puter spit out barely made sense. Only after read­ing S. T. Joshi’s two-volume biog­ra­phy of Love­craft was I finally con­fi­dent in my deci­pher­ing of the card.

We already know a lot of Lovecraft’s life and beliefs, which is a great part of why all of the many short sto­ries in which Love­craft is a char­ac­ter and the theme of the story is, “Every­thing Love­craft wrote about was real! Real!” are so tedious. He was a philo­soph­i­cal mate­ri­al­ist and a meta­phys­i­cal skep­tic, so of course there will be no secret cor­re­spon­dence, no occult mes­sages, in the tran­scrip­tion below.  But the post­card is inter­est­ing, and illu­mi­nat­ing, and strange, in its own way.

—Nick Mamatas

***

HPL

Received lat­est WT num­ber, enjoyed “Whis­perer.” Ques­tions, if you don’t mind.

1. Who was the man in the chair? A Mi-Go in dis­guise or Nyarlathotep himself?

Dear Good­e­nough. I sup­pose it would not be “good enough” sim­ply for the waxen hands and face to be a dis­guise. They had to be a por­tent, a sign of a ter­ror as well.

Ter­ror to what end? I sup­pose I am con­fused as to why the Mi-Go would allow Wilmarth to escape? Wasn’t the cha­rade designed to lure him in to their clutches, and to bring his researches with him so that they might seize and destroy them as well?

Wilmarth is allowed to escape in order to bet­ter spread the ter­ror — as a warn­ing to human­ity as to what awaits them beyond the inky black clouds of space, & in the ghost-haunted woods of New Eng­land. It is impor­tant to the Mi-Go that Wilmarth actu­ally spread the word of their coming.

But why is that?

[Love­craft doesn’t respond. Pre­sum­ably, the card was not sent back to him as the third “layer” of ques­tions go entirely unanswered.]

2. Fas­ci­nat­ing depic­tion of the brain can­is­ters, and the impli­ca­tions of same are both fright­en­ing and awe­some. Gen­e­sis of same?

It’s a laugh, but — a Dic­ta­phone cylin­der. Ol’ Grandpa Theobald was try­ing to find some gain­ful employ­ment, though I can barely stand to type up my own fic­tions much less the com­mer­cial com­mu­ni­ca­tions of oth­ers. If a device can record sound waves and thus a sem­b­lence of con­scious­ness, why not a device that, when encap­su­lat­ing the brain, can record brain waves and thus actual con­scious­ness? A few hours with the mech­a­nism & I would have flung it to Pluto if I could have.

Work! Is Mr. Wright not treat­ing you “right”? Surely you’re a “pro­fes­sional” now that you’ve left beind the ama­teur press and can draw an income from your work.

Oh, there is next to no money in the pulps, not unless one is truly ready & able to “hack it out” and write purely com­mer­cial mate­r­ial for the West­ern pulps, the sports pulps, & even — oh dear — the romance & con­fes­sions mag­a­zines.  It’s canned beans & one loaf of bread, pre-sliced, per week for me.

It is mar­velous to live in Ver­mont, where the world of com­merce and cap­i­tal is still held at arm’s length. You remem­ber your time here — no elec­tri­cal util­i­ties on the farm, phys­i­cal work out in the ver­dant fields, and social life based on fellow-feeling rather than annual income. What is your attrac­tion to city life?

[Again, no answer. This ques­tion reads almost as a dig. Surely, Good­e­nough knew that Love­craft loathed cities, with the excep­tion of Prov­i­dence, Rhode Island. Lovecraft’s 1927 visit to Ver­mont came on the heels of his return to New Eng­land after escap­ing the racially diverse and eco­nom­i­cally cratered neigh­bor­hood of Red Hook, in Brook­lyn NY. It is hard to imag­ine Love­craft not con­fid­ing his fears and frus­tra­tions with the urban life in Good­e­nough. Per­haps Good­e­nough was more pro­gres­sive than Love­craft, and wanted to nee­dle him a bit. Inci­den­tally, I’ve been to Red Hook many times, as my father works there as a long­shore­man. By my sights gen­tri­fi­ca­tion is just another form of ruina­tion, rather than its nega­tion, but Love­craft would fit right in these days — he was a cult writer who dressed funny and adopted many odd affec­ta­tions, after all.]

3. What was most inter­est­ing about the tale was the inte­gra­tion and inter­weav­ing of the super­nat­ural and the super­sci­en­tific. Do you see sci­ence and super­na­ture as one and the same?

No, there is noth­ing that can­not be ulti­mately expli­cated & under­stood via the use of sci­en­tific analy­sis. It is the lim­i­ta­tions of our brains — so large-seeming in those cozy alien can­nis­ters, but so minute swim­ming in this vast black uni­verse — that all but require an author to explore the super­nat­ural. It’s supremely ironic that the nat­ural world is too enor­mous and too fear­ful for the human mind to prop­erly cor­re­late all its con­tents & so we appeal to the sup­pos­edly inex­plic­a­ble super­nat­ural world to expli­cate the ulti­mately appre­hend­able nat­ural world.

So is it that the Mi-Go, with their supe­rior minds, have truly appre­hended the nat­ural world and thus appear to engage in super­nat­ural rit­ual only from the men­tal per­spec­tive of Wilmarth? Or do you mean to say that the uni­verse is proof against even the com­pre­hen­sion of the Mi-Go so that they too must make an appeal to the super­nat­ural, at least so far as is required to get Akeley’s coop­er­a­tion for his inter­plan­e­tary journey?

Both are delight­ful pos­si­bil­i­ties, & it would be a shame for me to sim­ply record my own thoughts on the sub­ject, as if your own were super­nu­mer­ary. Also, I am surely chal­leng­ing both your eyes and my own hand with my itsy-bitsy micro­minia­ture script as it stands. The Mi-Go are greater beings than we, but then again, who ain’t? But among the bes­tiary of Yog-Sothory they aren’t nearly the great­est or most pro­found of beings. I sup­pose the Mi-Go are rather like us. As we might pin but­ter­flies to a mount­ing board or attempt com­mu­ni­ca­tion with a bes­tial tribe of [here the work is redacted by a blot of ink spilled on to the card, and the col­or­ing sug­gests that it is from Goodenough’s pen, not Lovecraft’s] from dark­est Africa, they seek to learn about us through a vari­ety of means.

But Ake­ley, a will­ing par­tic­i­pant? A proud Ver­mon­ter acqui­esc­ing to hav­ing his skull sawed open and its insides scooped out in order to fill a can of beans? I never reread my own work, though I sup­pose that were any of my sto­ries con­tracted to be reprinted in a vol­ume of tales (Oh green and som­nam­bu­lant Cthulhu, were it so!) I might, but in this case I’ll make an exception.

But why would he not be will­ing? I love Ver­mont as much as you love your home of Prov­i­dence, but were strange and alien beings to mate­ri­al­ize at my door (being stranger than your­self and Mr. Cook any­way) with hints of a secret wis­dom and dis­plays of advanced machin­ery, I would give my all to ingra­ti­ate myself to them. I have no inter­est in the United States of the twen­ti­eth cen­tury — I’d be rightly pleased to never again wait for a street­car in the rain along with the other dour clerks and work­ing­men. But space? For­bid­den plan­ets that under the night sky seem so close that, if I could just find a tree tall enough, I could touch them? Yes, I would go in a moment. I would betray my fel­low man for the opportunity.

In the course of our cor­re­spon­dence, you declared that Wilmarth was allowed to escape in order to spread word of the com­ing of the Mi-Go. Does that not imply that the Mi-Go are eager for more recruits? They had been recluses; now they are ready to cul­ti­vate a gen­er­a­tion of human ini­ti­ates into their alien rites. Surely, we are to be tan­ta­lized by this pos­si­bil­ity, even as we are repulsed by the notion of hav­ing our brains removed and canned like peaches by beings who appear to be the off­spring of crus­taceans and fungi, to be trans­ported to a world far from the green hills of Earth.

What is there here for men like us, Howard? Won’t you take the oppor­tu­nity to go when it is pre­sented to you? My dreary old farm­house, your cramped apart­ments — there is a uni­verse wait­ing for us out there, and I am in a rage for it. My mouth is hot with bile; I feel chained to this planet. Don’t you, Mr. Love­craft? Don’t you?

[Of course, there is no answer, and not a spare mil­lime­ter left on the card for one.]

Nick Mamatas is the author of sev­eral nov­els, includ­ing the Love­craft­ian works Move Under Ground and, with Brian Keene, The Damned High­way, as well as sto­ries in Love­craft Unbound, Future Love­craft, and Black Wings II.