Assignment Five, Vacation Necronomicon School: “Howard Himself”.
Your assignment today is pure speculation. What aspect of modern culture do you think would have influenced Lovecraft if he were writing today? What contemporary scientific or cultural developments do you think would have enthralled him?
An Alternate Ending : a fiction
Howard Phillips Lovecraft made it, somehow, to 1939. And 1939 made him. Having enlisted but failed to serve in the First World War, in 1939 Lovecraft was determined to serve his country in the coming Second World War. After much wrangling, since he was then nearly 50, he became a member of the local Coast Guard Reserve force in 1939. In this capacity he then, somehow, came to the attention of the Boston Navy Yard. There he was able to secure a part-time assistant’s job with the library of the Naval Archives at Boston — probably so as to release a serviceman for intelligence duties. Within a year he had completely mastered the history of the navy in New England, and later made many useful contributions to its scholarly study. One of the first papers he wrote was a thorough historical survey of smuggling, usefully suggesting a number of little-known places on the New England coastline at which German submarines might try to clandestinely land people or materials. This bought his abilities to the notice of his superiors. His old and latent talent for comic writing also came into service, and he published comic stories and sketches in the armed forces magazines. Most notable of these are a string of fascinating comedy propaganda squits against the Axis powers, hilariously depicting them in his most outrageously pulp manner as inept and stupid many-tentacled monsters. It is also believed that he was sometimes confidentially consulted, by his predecessor at the Navy archive, on thorny problems in military intelligence work. Lovecraft himself notes that he was regularly assigned to help monitor the popular story magazines, for their possible clandestine use in passing ‘secret messages’ to German and later Japanese spies. The regular Navy pay, a warm office and the food of the officers’ canteen (for which, as the stand-in archivist and ad-hoc intelligence consultant, he was given a special pass) rapidly beefed up his physical and mental condition. As did a change of situation from Providence to Boston, since he was required to move there for the duration of the war. He felt this move to be his patriotic duty, but was no doubt pleased to find that it brought him into regular contact with those younger than himself.
From 1942, when America formally entered the war and men were consequently in short supply on the Home Front, he was placed in command of a special intelligence group of the U.S. Coast Guard Beach Patrol. This consisted of young lads who were not of sufficient mental fitness to serve in the forces, but whose youthful appearance, zeal, and writerly and artistic powers of observation led the Navy to form them into a clandestine ‘plain clothes’ unit — with special responsibility for detecting any communication between persons on the New England shoreline and the enemy at sea. Toward the end of the war Lovecraft once again began to write steadily, and in 1943-44 he wrote his great trilogy of weird werewolf novels now generally known under the title “The Wreck of Dreams”. These were set on the mist-haunted New England coastline of the 18th century, and were well reviewed for their powerful anti-Nazi subtext, the exploration of the roots of human cruelty, and the depiction of the struggle of man to overcome his own bestial instincts in the face of overwhelming terror. The strong sales of these popular but intelligent wartime chillers led to the publication of a long-awaited book collection of the best of his earlier stories in 1948.
After the end of the war he drifted back to Providence and found that he was able to eke out a living on book royalties, rights-options sold for some radio monologues, and the ghost-writing of plots and regional dialect for radio playwrights. The early 1950s saw the decline of radio in the face of television, for which he felt he was not suited to write. But around that time he began to be regularly approached by Hollywood agents to option some of his early works and werewolf novels for movies, and this — with the help of his shrewd new agent August Derleth — meant he was able to live in some modest comfort for the rest of his life. After receiving one especially lucrative movie options cheque in 1958, Lovecraft even made attempts to purchase back his boyhood home — but he found that the owners were unwilling to sell.
His own fiction writing was quiescent throughout most of the 1950s, possibly because he felt that he had said all he had wanted to say, and because the horrors of the recent war overshadowed anything he might be able to conjure in fiction. He did however write thoughtful and prescient prose meditations on the dawn of the atomic age and its likely impacts on the psyches of the young, which gained him some brief prominence as a public intellectual. Like many after the war, he was somewhat embarrassed by his political enthusiasms of the early 1930s. His intellectual infatuation with the authoritarian/fascist variant of socialism had been swept away by the experience of the war. In the early 1950s he read Ayn Rand’s science-fiction work Anthem (1937) while writing his monumental survey essay on the history of early science-fiction, and this led him to Rand’s seminal novel The Fountainhead (1943). He found Rand’s works chimed well with his own very similar atheism, individualism, and rigorous rationalism. Amid the changed and burgeoning economy of 1950s America, and under the influence of Rand’s potent pro-capitalist arguments and the very real communist threat, he sloughed off his earlier distaste for capitalism. He became a minor but very effective early supporter of Rand in the years before she published Atlas Shrugged (1957).
In the late 1960s Lovecraft was much feted by the new generation of science-fiction and fantasy writers, especially British writers, to the extent that he had to hire a part-time correspondence secretary, the brilliant young Harvard graduate S.T. Joshi. But at that time Lovecraft felt himself too old to accept any invitations to travel, and confined himself to dictated correspondence. The hiring of an eager secretary did, however, have the by-product of leading in time to the magnificent six-volume edited collection of letters which effectively form Lovecraft’s autobiography and which may — in future centuries — be judged to be Lovecraft’s most lasting contribution to the world of literature.
In the late 1960s Lovecraft learned of the experiment which the science-fiction writer Michael Moorcock was undertaking, in ‘giving away’ his major character Jerry Cornelius to be used by others writers. Lovecraft was put in mind of his own permissive attitudes to the use of his work in the 1920s and 30s, and made the seemingly spur-of-the-moment decision that has forever enshrined him as a ‘founding father’ of the open source movement. On his 80th birthday he famously demanded to be driven through the August heat, by the visiting Robert Barlow, to New York. At the main copyright offices in the city he alarmed the officials by signing all of his early Dunsanian and ‘Yog-Sothothery’ works into the public domain, a then unheard-of thing for a writer to do. Barlow, then a tenured and highly respected university professor of anthropology, was luckily able to assure the officials that the old man was quite sane and knew what he was doing. Derleth was furious when he found out what had happened, since he had renewed the copyrights just a few years before. But Lovecraft thereby ensured the place of the Cthulhu mythos in the weird literature of the 1960s and 70s, and spawned an empire of spin-offs and pastiches that will forever keep his name in the public eye. To encourage interest in his radical decision, he returned to Providence and wrote a new work for the Mythos, dictating it to Barlow over the following week and collaborating with his protégé on polishing the writing for a contemporary audience. This was Lovecraft’s final dazzling classic, and his first work of ‘Yog-Sothothery’ since the late 1930s. The novella “The Messages of Nyarlathotep” begins conventionally enough in a classically early Lovecraftian vein in a sort of alternate-history ‘proto valve-punk’ 1920s New York that recalls Nyarlathotep’s first appearance in fiction, but then moves forward in time to become an almost psychedelically intense and richly terrifying multi-layered voyage into the information society and its psychic implications — showing that Lovecraft had fully assimilated the new ideas on communications, cybernetics, systems theory and many other ideas of the 1960s. This last great work places him firmly in the vanguard of the prophets of the information revolution, and has also been seen as a progenitor of cyberpunk.