Sunday, February 15, 2009

H. P. Lovecraft & The Great Outdoors

Howard Phillips Lovecraft
(Linoleum block print by Linda Navroth)

Lovecraft's favorite 'sitting rock' at Quinsnicket Lake

Another view of the 'sitting rock' at far end of lake

Quinsnicket Lake through the trees

Forest path in Quinsnicket Woods
Many know H. P. Lovecraft (1890-1937) as a writer of weird stories, mainly published by pulp magazines such as Weird Tales and Amazing Stories. But what is not more generally known is that the man spent a great deal of time walking around various parks and tracts of woods near his home in Providence, RI.
One place that was a special favorite was Quinsnicket Woods, which was approx. 10 miles slightly northwest of Providence. Lovecraft would take a bus as far as the line went near to it, and walked the rest of the way. He thus would spend many hours sitting on a rock outcropping at the far end of Quinsnicket Lake, composing endless letters to his friends and acquaintances.
In 1929, in a letter to fellow weird writer Clark Ashton Smith (who lived in northern California) he wrote:

“I envy you the springtime which has visited your region so much sooner than it visits New England. We are still viewing brown earth, matted leaves, & bare boughs, though for the past week & a half it has been astonishingly mild for the season. The other day I took the first woodland outing of the season; carrying my reading & writing along as I do in summer, & spending the afternoon atop the great lakeside rock in the Quinsnicket region—a favorite haunt of mine. There were still patches of snow on the shady slopes, & the ice of the ponds was still unmelted; but brooks were running genially & noisily, and a haze of awakening lay upon all the hills & upland meadows. There is a curious magic in a New England spring even before the visual scene takes on beauty. It always makes me regret my lack of poetic powers.”

He also used such trips to 'soak up atmosphere' as he liked to refer to it, letting himself absorb and feel the eeriness of lonely places and taking in the sweeping view of his beloved Providence from some of the higher elevations.
Sunset was a favored time to take in such views and his letters are peppered with eloquent descriptions of the blazing sunsets and the impressions that they made upon him. He would sometimes use these impressions and others from his outdoor rambles in his fiction:

“I was far from home, and the spell of the eastern sea was upon me. In the twilight I heard it pounding on the rocks, and I knew it lay just over the hill where the twisting willows writhed against the clearing sky and the first stars of evening…I pushed on through the shallow, new-fallen snow along the road that soared lonely up to where Aldebaran twinkled among the trees…” [The Festival]

“One early morning in August Olney set out to find a path to the inaccessible pinnacle. He worked northwest along pleasant back roads, past Hooper’s Pond and the old brick powder-house to where the pastures slope up to the ridge able the Miskatonic and give a lovely vista of Arkham’s white Georgian steeples across leagues of river and meadow. Here he found a shady road to Arkham, but no trail at all in the seaward direction he wished. Woods and fields crowded up to the high bank of the river’s mouth, and bore not a sign of man’s presence; not even a stone wall or a straying cow, but only the tall grass and giant trees and tangles of briars that the first Indian might have seen.” [The Strange High House in the Mist]

Lovecraft’s astute observation while going about his walks in the countryside or as he watched fiery sunsets at evening lent credibility and genuineness to his stories that could not have been accomplished any other way. Presented below are a few examples of lush descriptions of landscapes and times of day, which I have found particularly indicative of Lovecraft’s powers of observation. His meticulous treatment of landscape in setting the mood for his stories is one of the hallmarks of his brand of weird tale. Although he was not the first to do so (Hawthorne preceded him), he took it to a new level, sometimes imbuing the natural world with human-like characteristics.

In 1927 and 1928 Lovecraft made two trips to visit Vrest Orton in Vermont. His experiences in and around the Brattleboro area gave him much raw material from which he spun this tale of the bizarre happenings at the Akeley farmhouse in "The Whisperer in Darkness." This story is perhaps most unique for its lengthy, detailed descriptions of rural southern Vermont, details which he did not lavish on his other stories. Perhaps he was impressed by the immense age of the Vermont land, much as I myself was on my visits to the state. There is something truly spooky and foreboding about the land there and it takes little imagination to see or feel all manner of strange things.

“The nearness and intimacy of the dwarfed, domed hills now became veritably breath-taking. Their steepness and abruptness were even greater than I had imagined from hearsay, and suggested nothing in common with the prosaic objective world we know. The dense, unvisited woods on those inaccessible slopes seemed to harbour alien and incredible things, and I felt that the very outline of the hills themselves held some strange and aeon-forgotten meaning, as if they were vast hieroglyphs left by a rumored titan race whose glories live in only rare, deep dreams.” [The Whisperer in Darkness]

Lovecraft, who possessed a sensitive nature, must have been particularly attuned to the ‘vibe’ and ‘residual energy’ that lingers in remote places that see few human visitors. That he actively sought those places out to experience, then use as an element of his fiction was a touch of brilliance and shows his determination to stand out as a writer.

[written while listening to vintage Elton John, of all people--notably "Madman Across the Water."]


Eileen said...

These days it is not so easy to find a remote place to restore one's soul. I am not familiar with this writer, but it is nice to know that you have helped preserve a bit of his history.

Linda Navroth said...

You aren't kidding it's hard! But I try and tease out whatever moments I can that are close at hand. Given enough trees, I can just about convince myself I am having an outdoor adventure of some kind!

On Lovecraft: He is not well known generally, but is hugely popular with a large and 'cultish' fan base, of which I am involved. I participate in Lovecraftian scholarship via in an amatuer press group. This post was derived from one of my recent submissions.

Thanks for visiting my blog!

Steven Marx said...

Hi Linda

Nice to catch up with your postings. I love the photos of the cattail tips catching the setting sun and the moon panorama.

I've become a fan of another blog--opposite coast, urban cultivated--also as a result of author's comment on mine. It's

Neglecting mine for too long. Planning a trip to Anza Borrego next weekend to see Desert Flowers.


Linda Navroth said...

Glad you stopped by again Steven! BTW--the photo of the cattails in the Washington visit post was taken at sunrise--hence the missing frost on part of it from the sun's 'warming' rays. I say 'warming' because it was about 28-degrees that morning, so the sun wasn't generating THAT much more warmth! But it was enough to take the frost off. Quite an amazing thing to see, actually.