Sunday, July 3, 2016

Conan and the Dweller, Part 1 by Bobby Derie

The idea of a land of darkness is excellent, and one footnote telling of ancient MSS. Which even the Egyptian priests could not read excited my imagination tremendously. That kind of thing resembles my own (purely mythical) “Pnakotic Manuscripts”; which are supposed to be the work of “Elder Ones” preceding the human race on this planet, and handed down through an early human civilization which once existed around the north pole.—H. P. Lovecraft to William Lumley, 12 May 1931, SL3.372-3

Farnsworth Wright
     A few months before Farnsworth Wright forwarded a letter from Robert E.Weird Tales put Lovecraft in touch with another fan: William Lumley (1880-1960) of Buffalo, New York, a watchman for the Agrico Chemical Company. (HPLE 159) According to Lovecraft, Lumley was a firm believer in the occult, having studied Albertus Magnus (Grand Albert and Petit Albert), Cornelius Agrippa (De Occulta Philosophia libri tres), Hermes Trismegistus (Corpus Hermeticum), Martin Delrio (Disquisitionum Magicarum Libri Sex), Paracelsus (probably the Archidoxes of Magic), and Remigius (Nicholas Rémy, Daemonolatreiae libri tres); references to Appolonius of Tyana, Geber, and Pythagorus were likely taken from Éliphas Lévi’s History of Magic—although Lovecraft goes on to add “Eibon, von Junzt , and Abdul Alhazred,” so HPL could have been exaggerating for effect, drawing on his own reading in the history of medieval grimoires. Like Howard and many of Lovecraft’s others correspondents, Lumley inquired into the reality of Cthulhu, Yog-Sothoth, and the rest of the artificial mythology. (AMtF 1.287-8, ES 1.339, SL4.270-1)

     Lumley and Lovecraft’s correspondence developed in parallel with Lovecraft and Howard’s. The Buffalo occultist was grateful enough to Lovecraft to gift him a copy of William Bradford’s Vathek in 1931 (ES 1.339) and Edward Lucas White’s Lukundoo & Other Stories in 1933 (LRBO 32), and Lovecraft in return planned to send Lumley a copy of an occult catalogue (ES 1.345). Despite being described by Lovecraft as “semi-illiterate” and “very crude in some ways,” he also claimed Lumley was “amazingly erudite in the lore of mediaeval magic, & possessed of a keen & genuine sense of the fantastic” (ES 1.448-9), “& with a streak of genuine weird sensitiveness not very far removed from a certain sort of blind, rhapsodic genius.” (ES 2.486)

H.P. Lovecraft
Lovecraft continued to answer his letters, including Lumley in his regular circle of correspondence. In a letter dated 7 May 1932, Lovecraft first describes Lumley to Robert E. Howard:
He claims to have traveled to all the secret places of the world—India, China, Nepal, Egypt, Thibet, etc.—and to have picked up all sorts of forbidden elder lore; also to have read Paracelsus, Remigius, Cornelius Agrippa, and all the other esoteric authors whom most of us merely talk about and refer to as we do to the Necronomicon and Black Book. He believes in occult mysteries, and is always telling about “manifestations” he sees in haunted houses and shunned valleys. He also speaks often of a mysterious friend of his—“The Oriental Ancient”—who is going to get him a forbidden book (as a loan, and not to be touched without certain ceremonies of mystical purification) from some hidden and unnamed monastery in India. Lumley is semi-illiterate—with no command of spelling or capitalisation—yet has a marvelously active and poetic imagination. He is going to write a story called “The City of Dim Faces”, and from what he says of it I honestly believe it will be excellent in a strange, mystical, atmospheric way. The fellow has a remarkable sort of natural eloquence—a chanting, imageful style which almost triumphs over its illiteracies. If he finishes this tale I think I’ll help him knock it into shape for submission to Wright. There is real charm—as well as real pathos—about this wistful old boy, who seems to be well long in years and in rather uncertain health. He obviously has a higher-grade mind than Olson could ever have had—for even now there is a certain wild beauty and consistency, with not the least touch of incoherence, in his epistolary extravagances. Young Brobst (as I told you, nurse in a mental hospital) thinks a touch of real insanity is present, but I regard the case as a borderline one. I always answer his letters in as kindly a fashion as possible. (AMtF 1.287-8; cf. ES 1.448-9)
Henry S. Whitehead
     The “Olson” in question is another semi-literate Weird Tales fan that believed in the occult, but in contrast to Lovecraft’s description of Lumley as a “good old soul,” Olson wrote harassing, nonsensical letters to Henry S. Whitehead, Clark Ashton Smith, and Robert E. Howard. (ES 339) Lumley apparently received the book from the “Oriental ancient” which was “not to be touched without certain ceremonies of mystical purification” is reflective of the European grimoire tradition with works like the Lesser Key of Solomon or the Book of the Sacred Magic of Abra-Melin the Mage; in a letter to Clark Ashton Smith, Lovecraft expanded that these ceremonies included “the donning of a white robe,” which is characteristic for purification rituals in both works. (SL4.270)

     The Texan was intrigued enough by Lovecraft’s description to inquire further about Lumley in his answering letter:
I was much interested in what you said of the man Lumley, of Buffalo. He must be indeed an interesting study; possibly of such a sensitive and delicate nature that he has, more or less unconsciously, taken refuge from reality in misty imaginings and occult dreams. I hope he completes his story, and that it is published. Do you believe the “Oriental Ancient” has any existence outside his imagination? There is to me a terrible pathos in a man’s vain wanderings on occult paths, and clutching at non-existent things, as a refuge from the soul-crushing stark realities of life. (AMtF 1.292, CL2.354)
     Howard’s sentiment echoes the theme of his King Kull story “The Mirrors of Tuzun Thune” (WT Sep 1929), but he found it interesting enough to pass along an abridged version of Lovecraft’s account to Tevis Clyde Smith:
Lovecraft tells me about an old fellow who writes him all sorts of phantasies about esoteric subjects, and relates spectral manifestations glimpsed in haunted houses and the like; he professes to have pried into all the mysterious corners of the world, and to be hand-in-glove with a cryptic being he calls “the Oriental ancient” who apparently bobs up unexpectedly from behind sofas and well-curbs, gives vent to philosophic gems and utterances, and vanishes again. Lovecraft thinks the old gentleman is on the border-line of sanity, but one Brobst, a brain student, thinks he is nuts. (CL2.369)

Robert E. Howard
Lovecraft replied to Howard at length:
This fellow Lumley, on the other hand, is a really fascinating character—in a way, a sort of thwarted poet. It is very hard to tell where his sense of fact begins to give way to imaginative embroidery—but I think he usually enlarges on some actual nucleus. He has, I imagine, really knocked about the world quite a bit—hence his dreams of visiting Nepal, darkest Africa, the interior of China, and so on. I fancy there is some old fellow corresponding to his idealised figure of “The Oriental Ancient”—perhaps an aged and talkative Chinese laundryman, or perhaps even some “Swami” of the sort now found in increasing numbers wherever the field for faddist-cult organisation seems promising. Providence, for example, has several of these swarthy Eastern ascetics nowadays. Lumley is naturally in touch with all sorts of freak cults from Rosicrucians to Theosophists. I surely hope he will finish his “City of Dim Faces”, for anything written uncommercially—from the pure self-expression motive—is a welcome rarity nowadays. There is surely, as you say, a tremendous pathos in the case of those who clutch at unreality as a compensation for inadequate or uncongenial realities. (AMtF 1.307)
     Lovecraft and Howard were both generally unversed in the details of the occult, though each worked to expand their knowledge through reading and correspondence, aided in part by a collection of materials on theosophy supplied by E. Hoffmann Price and circulated among the group. The influence of theosophy in particular on both authors has been examined in essays like HPL and HPB: Lovecraft’s Use of Theosophy by Robert M. Price and Theosophy and the Thurian Age by Jeffrey Shanks.

Works Cited

AMtF       A Means to Freedom (Hippocampus Press, 2 vols.)
CL            Collected Letters of Robert E. Howard (Robert E. Howard                                                Foundation, 3 vols. + Index and Addenda)
ES            Essential Solitude (Hippocampus Press, 2 vols.)
HPLE       The H. P. Lovecraft Encyclopedia (Hippocampus Press)
LRBO      Letters to Robert Bloch and Others (Hippocampus Press)
MTS        Mysteries of Time and Spirit (Night Shade Books)
OFF         O Fortunate Floridian (University of Tampa Press)
SL            Selected Letters of H. P. Lovecraft (Arkham House, 5 vols.)
SLCAS    Selected Letters of Clark Ashton Smith (Arkham House)
TFF         The Fantasy Fan (Lance Thingmaker)
UL           H. P. Lovecraft: Uncollected Letters (Necronomicon Press)

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