Lovecraft’s early failure “The Transition of Juan Romero” (Sept 1919) is located in “the Cactus Mountains”…
“In the summer and autumn of 1894 I dwelt in the drear expanses of the Cactus Mountains, employed as a common labourer at the celebrated Norton Mine, whose discovery by an aged prospector some years before had turned the surrounding region from a nearly unpeopled waste to a seething cauldron of sordid life.”
There really were and are “Cactus Mountains”, which lie south-east of Tonopah. Gold was first discovered there 1900, the gold rush there was 1903, and by 1915 the area south of Tonopah was the U.S.A.’s second biggest gold producing locality. The “Cactus Mountains” can be traced in documents from the 1840s, through to the following article in the Mining and Scientific Press magazine (1912). This article gives some of the history and details of a new 1911 gold discovery at the southern tip of the Cactus Mountains, Lovecraft’s exact setting…
There had also been new mines sunk at that spot by a British miner (recalling the nationality of the narrator of “Juan Romero”?), ostensibly for other minerals, back in 1908. The British miner’s name was Samuel G. Knott, and he was president of the Cactus Range Gold Mining company of Goldfield. His Mine Supervisor there was Elmer F. King. So far as my researches can tell, Knott was not known to have previously been in British India (as the British narrator of “Juan Romero” had been).
Mention of these mountains also occurs in a U.S. Navy report of 1977… “The 8 to 10 miles of blasting required along each antenna line occurs in the Cactus Mountains on the Tonopah Test Range…” The mountains are now better known as the Cactus Range (Lovecraft also uses this name in the story) and they form part of a vast highly-restricted military testing ground. The location in particular is now “Area 52, Tonopah Test Range“, sited 30 miles SE of Tonopah …
“lies mostly within the Cactus Flat valley, consisting of horst and graben geology. It is flanked by the Cactus Range hills to the west”
Yes, conspiracy fans, Lovecraft got there first as usual — this Area 52 is the neighbour of the fabled Area 51. 🙂 Which, for some, may bring a new frisson to the story’s descriptions — since they appear to somewhat prefigure the tropes of UFO folklore…
“[the mysterious sound from the newly-discovered bottomless cave] was like the pulsing of the engines far down in a great liner, as sensed from the deck, yet it was not so mechanical; not so devoid of the element of life and consciousness.”
“At first I beheld nothing [in the bottomless pit] but a seething blur of luminosity; but then shapes, all infinitely distant, began to detach themselves from the confusion, and I saw — was it Juan Romero? — but God! I dare not tell you what I saw!”
Another curious co-incidence is that the story “Juan Romero” was not published until 1944. I’m no expert on the history of UFOs, but that appears to be the same year as the UFO craze first started.
Lovecraft also sites the action in “Juan Romero” directly beneath a “Jewel Lake”. Sadly this name, like the name “Norton Mine”, doesn’t lead anywhere. The area is a volcanic plateau at 6,000 feet, and is very dry on the surface although there are springs and water not far down under the earth. According to the following 1905 topographic map there was no actual named lake at the exact spot, and the history book Preserving the Glory Days: Ghost Towns and Mining Camps of Nye County, Nevada has no mention of a Jewel Lake (or a Norton Mine, for that matter). Although the blue dotted areas on the 1905 topo map perhaps indicate there were temporary flashes of valley-bottom water in winter?
There is a huge “Mud Lake” nearby, though. So I wonder if Lovecraft may have flipped the meaning of the name, from Mud to Jewel?
How did Lovecraft come to know of the area? He appears to have been inspired in his choice of a desert setting by reading an amateur journalism author he named in a letter as ‘Phil Mac’ (Prof. Philip B. McDonald), who had apparently used a similar desert / mining setting, but for a “commonplace adventure yarn” (Lord of a Visible World, p.69). It seems Lovecraft had copied out a “dull” and “commonplace adventure yarn” sent to him by McDonald, intending to send the copy to his correspondence circle with a detailed critique of his own. But then he decided to just spend a day writing his own story based on the same or similar setting, and he then sent out both… “Youze gazinks have seen both Mac’s and my yarns.”
Philip B. McDonald graduated M.E. (Master of Engineering) from Michigan College of Mines. In Lovecraft’s The Conservative, McDonald was stated to be “Assistant Professor of Engineering English, University of Colorado” in July 1918, though he later moved to New York to become assistant professor of English, New York University. It appears he was the husband of the noted amateur journalist Edna Hyde McDonald (“Vondy”). McDonald’s desert story was not used in Lovecraft’s The Conservative and seems not to exist today, nor any of his fiction. So we don’t know how closely Lovecraft used, or not, what he called “the richly significant setting” of McDonald’s “dull yarn”.