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



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.