“Thus only a week after his advent to the Stubbs family circle, where he lurked like the vile serpent that he was, he had persuaded the heroine to elope! It was in the night that she went leaving a note for her parents, sniffing the familiar mash for the last time, and kissing the cat goodbye – touching stuff!”
Welcome back to another Blind Read! This week we’re talking about the satiric and absurdist piece, “Sweet Ermengarde.” This is a literature genre that I’m not super familiar with (at least it’s history), but this story seems to bite off the comedic nature of some of his contemporaries, while calling back to some of those classical authors like Shakespeare, or even further back, Aristophanes.
Calling on Vaudeville, Lovecraft tells a story of Ethyl Ermengarde Stubbs, whom “...her father persuaded her to drop the praenomen after the passage of the 18th Amendment, averring that it made him thirsty by reminding him of ethyl alcohol” This is the beginning of our tale, setting us up to understand what we’re getting ourselves into.
Ermengarde is a “Simple Rustic Maid” who “confessed to sixteen summers, and branded as mendacious all reports to the effect that she was thirty.” and had “light hair which was never dark at the roots except when the local drug store was short on supplies.” This sets our maid up as duplicitous from the start. These examples, of course are not devious in any way, but they give an indication that things are not actually what they seem. If we know anything about Lovecraft we know this will eventually pay off, because he tends to be very exacting in his prose, never leaving the slightest detail to chance.
We soon learn that Ermengarde had two suitors, “‘Squire Hardman, who had a mortgage on the old home (The Stubbs farm), was very rich and elderly.” and “the handsome Jack Manly, whose curly yellow hair had won the sweet Ermengarde’s heart...”
Nearly Dickensian isn’t it? We have the dastardly vaudevillian villain, Hardman (he’s a “hard man” to love…he is a “hard man” with a hard heart, only caring about money and prestige) who could frequently be seen “viciously twirling his moustache and riding crop, and kicking an unquestionably innocent cat who was out strolling (Lovecraft loves cats).” Meanwhile we have the Jack Manly, who was a young heartthrob and was the romantic love interest who frequently whispered secret nothings to Ermengarde. We immediately know we are supposed to root for “Manly” and hate “Hardman” despite the over the top affections Lovecraft writes in to fan the flames of absurdism in the tale.
Then, just to add another nail in the ridiculous coffin, when the first chapter ends Lovecraft puts “Curtain” as a stage direction indicating the end of a scene; though this is very obviously a story and not a play. It’s just yet another call back to the vaudeville stage plays, with their moustache twirling villains and hooks to pull the players from the stage after a gaff.
The second chapter begins with Hardman going after the Stubbs unknown “vein of rich GOLD!” He plans on foreclosing the Stubbs farm unless Ermengarde disavows her “Manly” lover and marries him. Jack, being the man he is (and after his “Tears flowed like white ale“), he decides he is going to go off to the city to gain a fortune and buy the mortgage from Hardman. Queue more over the top PDA.
Hardman, not to be foiled, decides to kidnap Ermengarde only to realize (after deciding she was being too “Difficult” that it would just be easier to foreclose! Why then he could just take the gold! But, in the mean time, a few hunters find the gold and make an attempt to garner sweet Ermengarde’s affections.
And, believe it or not, ANOTHER suitor comes into play, the indominable Algernon Reginald Jones; the perfidious “city chap” who came down to work on the foreclosure which brings up to the quote at the beginning of this essay. That was all pure Lovecraft: all at once vilifying and romanticizing the exit. Pure satire.
But then our resourceful young (well, as long as the hair dye held out) lady finds a love note from another woman in Algernon’s breast pocket! Well I never! She just had to leave that scoundrel behind!
So she heads off and gets lost “Alone in the Great City.” She looks for her “Manly” suitor but fails. She looks for a job and only finds only a “fashionable and depraved cabaret; but our heroine was true to her rustic ideals and refused to work in such a gilded and glittering palace of frivolity – especially since she was offered only $3.00 per week with meals but no board.”
She wanders and finds an ornate bag in the park. Soon after finding that the the owner is a Mrs. Van Itty, a clever play on words and very much a replacement for Havisham of Great Expectations fame. Mrs. Vanity, sorry… Van Itty is so pleased with our heroine that she takes her on as a ward, and then everything begins to come up Millhouse.
Van Itty hires a chauffer who turns out to be the down and out Algernon. remember the note from the woman in his breast pocket? She stole all his land and money from him.
Algernon drives Van Itty and Ermengarde to Hogton (another fun play on setting and words), Ermengarde’s home, and there they find that Manly has become a beggar. Van Itty sees Ermengarde’s mother and realizes that she was a maid who stole Van Itty’s babe from her crib some 28 years previous (“How could she get away with the sixteen-year-old-stuff if she had been stolen twenty-eight years ago?”). So Ermengarde was really Van Itty’s child all along! With this incredible revelation our intrepid heroine decides to take Hardman up on his offer and foreclose on her faux parent’s house and take the vein of gold for herself. Hardman, “The poor dub did…” what she asked and became subservient, and Ermengarde was suddenly the devious rich heiress.
We come to the end of the tale and find there is a bit of a Lovecraftian twist and role reversal going on. Ermengarde is a play on a contemporary Frances Hodgson Burnett’s character in The Little Princess (P. 1905), of the same name. In that story Ermengarde is a “fat child who is not in the least bit clever…” and that’s who we are meant to believe this Ermengarde is (mentally, not physically), but this is Lovecraft and he’s never pleased with leaving things simple so he flips expectations on their head multiple times. Manly becomes a bum. Algernon becomes a pauper. Hardman becomes a cull. Van Itty becomes a loving mother.
Taking an “As You Like It” type of approach, Lovecraft excels in his humor and construction to give us the surprise ending, but he does leave clues along the way.
Her father, the elder Stubbs, is a bootlegger and loves alcohol so much that he has to drop his daughter’s first name, lest he become a lost drunk. Hardman makes poor decisions and cant figure out that he can just foreclose on the property to get the gold until it’s too late. Algernon let’s things happen to him, rather than making things happen for himself. Manly is nothing but a pretty face and curly hair. These are the types of details you must pay attention to in Lovecraft to be informed on where he’s going next, both in this absurdist romp, and the normal horrific fare.
This is not your normal Lovecraft, but it is spectacular and hilarious. If you’re a fan of classic literature the references and the humor will hit you in exactly the right way. This is a must.
Join me next week as we delve into an underground Lovecraft classic “The Music of Erich Zann!”
I have one last reference I wanted to call up. Algernon Reginald Jones (and the whole tale in total) seem to be a call back to the tales of Horatio Alger, the classic rags to riches author. Alger wrote about “Street Boys” who lived the American Dream. They worked hard and worked their way up the ladder to become pillars of their community or leaders in business. Alger(non) was a play on those classic characters, but with the classic Lovecraft twist.
It’s truly amazing the depth and intelligence that Lovecraft writes with. It makes me a bit sad that I started here and not with Lord Dunsany or other contemporaries, because even as I delve deeper, I find that his work is founded on so many others. His ideas are built from the seeds of his predecessors and I feel as though I’ve missed so much by not understanding fully his foundation.
This post has been a bit English Teachery (and I get rid of that idea by using a word like teachery!) but there is so much more enjoyment when you catch the threads and really get into the man’s head!
“I am now, however, resolv’d to unburthen myself of a Secret which I have hitherto kept thro’ Dread of Incredulity; and to impart to the publick a true knowledge of my long years, in order to gratifie their taste for authentick Information of an Age with whose famous Personages I was on familiar Terms.”
Welcome back to another Blind Read!
As you can tell this is not your normal Lovecraft story. In fact I debated on whether I should cover it or not, but in the end I decided that each one of these stories gives a a glimpse at the half occluded mind of Lovecraft and thus informs us, hopefully not falsely, into the theories and connections behind the writing itself.
I’ve seen this story categorized as a “whimsey” and I cant think of a better box to put it in. Whimsey is a sobriquet for anything odd or fanciful.; a product of capricious fancy. This is a story which describes Lovecraft’s likes and dislikes, it is not a story in and of itself (so dont be looking for a recap!)
He tells the story under a pen name of Humphry Littlewit, talk about a capricious reference! He was a man born of little wit, indicating the reader to ready themselves for the sarcastic tone coming. This is just another reiteration to tell us not to take this story too seriously.
What we see from the opening paragraph is Lovecraft calling himself basically an immortal. He was born in 1690, and much of his writing is inspired by this influence: “Tho’ many of my readers have at times observ’d and remark’d a Sort of antique Flow in my Stile of Writing...”
This is probably the most interesting aspect of this story and the only time I’ve seen this in Lovecraft’s writing. The 4th wall. This story is Lovecraft directly telling his audience how he feels about style and the works of others. It’s full of references and I cant even come close to capturing all of them, but it seems to focus quite a bit on “THE LITERARY CLUB“
We go on for pages describing the merits of the writers whom would meet with Samuel Johnson and speak of their admittance to the group. What’s important about this is the way he speaks of these men of science and letters. There is no small amount of derision, masked by sarcasm, for these other writers and historians. This goes right along with the image of Lovecraft where he is full of himself…what some call “stuffy,” while at the same time lauding his appreciation for Johnson. Johnson is considered by some (very obviously by Lovecraft) to be one of the most distinguished writers in history, and by the critique of the other huge names (men like Gibbon, who wrote the preeminent history of Rome) Lovecraft is teasing that he is amongst the greatest who ever lived.
The deeper we dig, however, it actually seems as though Lovecraft is simultaneously venting his frustration over critics while simultaneously giving justifications for his own writing through the lampooning of the other writers.
Lines such as “‘you are mistaken. They who lose their Hold do so from their own Want of Strength; but desiring to conceal their weakness, they attribute the Absense of Success to the first Critick that mentions them.”
Lovecraft was not received well during his lifetime. It wasn’t until August Derleth posthumously published his works that he started to gain traction. Once has to wonder how much of this is Lovecraft voicing his own opinion through another’s lens to get his true feelings out in the open.
This is the penultimate example, other than in the last few lines where he speaks of John Burgoyne and how he never succeeded in his life of letters. The narrator insinuates that, because of his failure in Saratoga during the American Revolution, he “was blackballed by three votes,” ultimately meaning that talent didn’t matter, his life and his failures in public life held him back from being a successful writer.
Lovecraft felt much the same way about himself. It didn’t seem to matter how hard he tried, he projected that those outside factors limited his ability to be successful… much like John Borgoyne. That, coupled with the negative reception of his first few stories (which lets be real, every writer experiences), he “attributed” his failure to that “first critick that mentioned him.”
It goes even further, because “Dr. Johnson was second to no Man in the Pains he took to revise the bad Verses of others...”
Just after this line we have the narrator (Lovecraft) re-writing a poem, to which Johnson tells him “Sir, you have straightened out the Feet, but you have put neither Wit nor Poetry into the lines.” He is after all “Littlewit”.
This may seem like a whole lot of negative to be said about Lovecraft, but I’d contend the exact opposite. These were features of himself that he recognized, and this story in effect, is a lampooning of himself and his “stuffy” nature. He’s here calling out his failures, and doing so in a tongue-in-cheek kind of way.
While this in no means was a great read (if you’re a casual reader ignore it), it really shows his motivations and gives a good insight into his personality. Many contend that Lovecraft didn’t have a sense of humor and was too full of himself, but the story is written in Samuel Johnson’s style-not Lovecraft’s- and he points out his own weaknesses, showing that there are those whom Lovecraft looked up to, and that he was only too aware of his shortcomings. It’s a bit drab of a story, but if you’re interested in learning more about the man then you have to give this one a shot!
Join me next week as we cover another one his Lovecraft’s attempts at humor: “Sweet Ermengarde.”
“Gabe! Oh God please get over here! I don’t know what to do. It’s horrible!”
It was Henry… I hadn’t heard from Henry for quite some time. We were flat mates back in college; the days of too much drinking and too many drugs. We’d grown apart over time, not because of any interpersonal issues, just time and space. He’d become a Chemist and I became a police detective. My policing skills made it all the more disturbing that he was calling me out of the blue.
“Henry, slow down. What’s going on?” I asked.
“My lab. It’s been destroyed and… my assistants… Gabe. They’re dead! Someone killed them!” Henry wailed.
“Call the police Henry, meaning right now. As soon as I get off the phone. I’ll be there as soon as I can.”
I grabbed my coat and exited my brownstone. Snow was coming down in droves which always seemed to make it harder to get a cab. When I finally flagged one down, I got in and the world was drowned out by Bruce Springsteen’s new hit blaring over the radio.
The cab made its way across town as slow as molasses, belying the song blaring on the radio. We apparently were not “Born to Run.”
My hackles rose as soon as we pulled up to Henry’s lab. The windows were smashed and the snow beneath them was spattered with red spots. I hoped it wasn’t blood, but as a detective I knew better.
I tossed the cabbie a tenner and knocked on the door to the lab. I checked to make sure my pistol was in its holster under my coat and took out my Moleskine.
The door flew open and Henry stood there looking frantic. His eyes were sunken and his skin was jaundiced. He looked like he hadn’t slept for days. Springsteen echoed behind him in his lab.
“Gabe! Thank God! Get in here! I don’t know what to do!”
“Slow it down Henry, tell me what’s going on,” I said entering the lab. It was a disaster. Broken glass everywhere. The ground was littered with viscous liquid, but what was worse was the bodies. Two people were dead on the ground. I didn’t even need to inspect them, their terrible wounds told me all I needed to know.
A woman had her head turned around backwards, her spine creating strange bluish-purple bulges in her neck where the bone was trying to break free.
A man was lying in a pool of blood with what looked to be a sword sticking out of his back. That must have been what created the blood spatter on the snow outside. I walked to the end of the room to switch off the radio. I couldn’t focus with that music blaring.
“They told me that a man named Edward came here looking for me. Looking for a new formula I’d created,” Henry said.
“Did they see him?” I started, then looked back at my disheveled friend, “wait, did you say they told you?”
“Yes! They told me he came in here and tore the place apart looking for more of my formula and when he couldn’t find it…” Henry trailed off.
“Henry,” I said. “How could they have told you if they were dead when you got there?”
His face looked surprised for a moment, then it twisted somehow. His skin rippled, his hair grew, his eye color changed. He was not the Henry I once knew.
“Oh you are so smart, Gabe!” His voice was not Henry’s. This voice was lower, rockier.
I reached for my pistol but he was faster than light. He was upon me before I could draw the revolver and his sharp teeth dug into my shoulder.
I screamed in agony and threw him away from me.
I managed a glance at him as I fumbled for my Smith and Wesson. What I saw was not human. His nails had grown long and sharp and his joints snapped and twisted into something more bestial. His eyes were bloodshot, matching my blood which covered his mouth and nose.
“Henry,” I cried, pulling the gun and pointing it. “What was in that formula?”
He laughed and sprung. I do not believe in the supernatural, but I swear he covered the fifteen feet between us with a single bound. His nails dug at my shoulders and his teeth snapped at my face. The pistol went off and he squealed like a rat.
I fell backward when he let go and fired another bullet off after him. I swear it hit him. I saw the blood spray off him but he didn’t stop moving.
The lights suddenly went out, plunging the lab into darkness. The only light in the room was the dim illumination of the lamp from the street.
“Henry!” I cried. “Henry, I don’t know what you’ve done, but we can reverse this! Did the formula make you become Edward?”
Laugher echoed through the laboratory. Springsteen came back on the radio.
“Henry! You called for help! I know you called for me to help you get rid of this Edward. Come out and let me help you!” I cried.
He sprang at me from my flank and I felt nails rake across my back.
I screamed and fired my pistol again.
At night, we ride through mansions of glory, in suicide machines…
“Is there an antidote, Henry?” I cried into the darkened room.
…this town rips the bones from your back…
I heard the laughter of the insane in the room.
“You really don’t understand, Gabe,” he laughed.
I could see his eyes reflecting through the darkness.
…it’s a death trap, it’s a suicide rap…
“The serum wasn’t to help me control the urges.”
…we gotta get out of here…
I lost him. I couldn’t see where he was. I took a deep breath and braced my pistol in both hands.
“You see Gabe,” He began before singing along with The Boss “I gotta find out how it feels. Don’t you want to know how it feels?”
He was suddenly in front of me and I felt his nails claw into me again. I shot my gun, but it was errant. He was gone again before I could respond.
Laughter echoed in the darkness.
…Tramps like us, baby we were born to run…
“Once I took the serum there was no more Henry. There was only Edward,” his laughter echoed inside my head. I was suddenly dizzy. I felt consciousness retreating from me. I looked down to where he scratched me. There was no scratch. I saw a syringe sticking out of me.
…I want to die with you…
“I didn’t call you here to stop Edward,” His gravelly voice said.
…on the streets tonight…
“I called you here to have a partner.”
I felt intense anger. I leaned into the hate. It felt good.
…Tramps like us, baby we were born to run…
“At one time – probably in middle life – he had evidently been grossly fat; but now he was horribly lean, the purple flesh hanging in loose pouches under his bleary eyes and upon his cheeks. Altogether, Old Bugs was not pleasing to look upon.”
Welcome back to another Blind Read! This week we’re digging into the parable of Old Bugs and we’ll talk a little about writing style and contemporaries of Lovecraft.
I started reading this story expecting some kind of dark twist by the end. The title made me pause, because I was worried about some kind of Lovecraftian gross out. I was met with, not a scary tale, but a wonderful parable about the dangers of addiction. Of course this is told through Lovecraft’s lens so it is far more severe than it needs to be, but it’s told to hammer the point across, so take the text with a grain of salt.
Our story begins by describing Sheehan’s Pool Room, “which adorns one of the lesser alleys in the heart of Chicago’s stockyard distcrict, is not a nice place.” Lovecraft describes the air as having “acrid fumes of unnumbered cheap cigars and cigarettes,” which “too seldom know(s) the purifying rays of the sun“
Lovecraft says this pool hall is redolent with “the aroma of strong, wicked whiskey...” and we soon find out that the story takes place in 1950…31 years after the story was written.
Lovecraft vaguely describes the 18th amendment (prohibition) as coming from a “benevolent government” so right away we know that, between the story taking place in Chicago notorious for it’s speakeasys, and speaking of prohibition, that Lovecraft expected that doomed amendment to continue on forever. Lovecraft, you see, was a teetotaler and contended that there was evil inherent in alcohol as well as drugs.
The story evolves beyond Sheehan’s to describe the codger “Old Bugs.” Bugs is a sad excuse for a human (In Lovecraft’s opinion). He begs for drink and drugs in Sheehan’s in exchange for doing menial and disgusting labor. He apparently “epitomised the pathetic soecies known as ‘bum’ or the ‘down-and-outer‘.”
No one seems to know where Old Bugs came from but he often started stories of his past, “exploding into sesquipedalian admonitions and strange oaths…” giving indication that Bugs at some point was formally educated, but soon after his verbose tirades, his “alcohol-enfeebled brain would wander from the subject,” and he would return to his menial cleaning task.
The only break was when Bugs would pull out an old picture of a young woman, apparently an old lover, but invariably he would stuff it back into his pocket and get lost into drink.
Being prohibition, alcohol was illegal and thus Sheehan’s was stuck in a back alley away from prying eyes. To get new business the “pool hall” employed “runners” to garner new clients. One day a runner brought in young Alfred Trever to the hall; “a rich and high-spirited youth who would ‘go the limit’ in anything he undertook.‘”
He was a college boy who at Lawrence just joined the “mock-fraternity” of…wait for it…”Tappa Tappa Keg.” One can feel both sarcasm and the disdain for the drink dripping off the page.
Young Galpin had a young fiancé and a very rigid mother who rails against alcohol. These feelings in Galpin’s mother come from her own fiancé before Galpin’s father. Apparently he was a brilliant young man who was about to take up a professorship at Lawrence, before “Evil habits, dating from a first drink taken years before in woodland seclusion, made themselves manifest in the young professor; and only by a hurried resignation did he escape a nasty persecution for injury to the habits and morals of the pupils under his charge.“
Old Bugs overhears this tale and watches on in silence, cleaning vomit and filth from the bar.
Young Trevor, excited to jump into an unknown arena, orders a whiskey and is about to drink it. Old Bugs meanwhile has pulled out the picture of the young lady. He approaches Trevor and states:
Do not do this thing. I was like you once, and I did it. now I am like – this.
Bugs persists and Sheehan goes to remove him. A scuffle breaks out and Bugs was heard yelling “He shall not drink! He shall not drink!”
They eventually get Bugs out of the bar…excuse me, “pool hall” and Trevor sits down to grab his drink again when he notices the picture Old Bugs’ fawns over on the bar. He is surprised because, “Over the library mantel in his home hung the exact replica of that picture, and all his life he had known and loved the original.
“For the gentle and noble features were those of his own mother.”
Wow what a parable!
I actually found out after reading the story that Lovecraft wrote the tale for a young friend Alfred Galpin, who wanted to get drink before Prohibition started. Lovecraft sent young Galpin the story along with a letter. The letter was asked to be read after the story, and in the letter is said “Now will you be good?”
It’s nice to see more of a human side of Lovecraft, even if he is a little spastic in his affections. Alfred was the name of the youth in the story, Galpin was Old Bugs original name and even Elanor Wing, who was Bug’s love interest and Alfred’s mother, was a friend of Lovecraft in real life. This was a pointed story to get Alfred Galpin (his friend) not to drink, because obviously if he had one sip then obviously he would devolve into an old bum begging for drink in a tavern. Incidentally that’s why this is the only Lovecraft story (of which I’ve read at least) which takes place that far in the future. It’s written that way to make Galpin understand that if he gets lost in the drink then what he has to look forward to is a life as Old Bugs.
Being this close to the holidays, there is no doubt an echo of Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol” with the look into the future and what it could hold if the current path isn’t altered. I would contend however that there is a stronger resemblance to a contemporary across the United States in San Francisco…Ambrose Bierce.
This is exactly a tale that Bierce would tell and it’s told in much the same manner and dialect. Granted Bierce came before Lovecraft (and to tell the truth I haven’t actually heard Lovecraft referencing Bierce), but the tonality is the same. When you take a story like “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge” which was made into a Twilight Zone episode of the same name, you can almost feel a visceral sensation of morality streaming through the text.
Then when you layer on newer writers of Lovecraftian fictions like Brian Lumley, you can see some of the same moral tones which blend in between Bierce and Lovecraft. Specifically in stories like “Fruiting Bodies” or “The Levee.”
Beyond morality, there is also the twist ending which Bierce was famous for (and sometimes forced through…painfully). Lovecraft tacks on this style of twist ending with some of his short stories very well, but the vast majority are trundling towards an inevitable ending. This story, though obvious, was specifically meant to have a shock ending to elicit a response from his friend, and by extension the audience, which was a divergence from Bierce. Bierce was looking for the shock, for the unexpected. He contended that he was the best writer to ever live because of this, and where he was absolutely a staple of American literature, by no means was he the best and his usage of these kind of tricks may have carried on beyond him, but for writers like Lovecraft, they give a basis of what to do and what not to do when building these kind of stories. Yes the ending was there for a bit of shock value, but the story was also written to be an anvil over the readers head. This story is not subtle in it’s moral, and thus we already know what the ending is going to be when we get there. This makes the shock ending more palatable because the reader can recognize it as a device that’s used sort of tongue in cheek instead of as a desire to shock.
Join me next week as we tackle “A Reminiscence of Dr. Johnson!”