Such Pulp As Dreams Are Made On (H. P. Lovecraft and Clark Ashton Smith)

Robert Allerton Parker

Forests are decimated and the dismembered corpses of trees are tossed into a hell-broth concocted by industrial chemurgy, and so reduced to cellulose. This wood-pulp is converted into paper of various types. Nine-hundred and sixty nine mills are engaged in the primary pulp and paper industry in the United States: more than a million persons are supported by this process. These figures do not include those masses engaged, in one way or another, in the various skills of spreading ink upon the paper.

All this multifarious activity has grown up in response to one basic human craving—that insatiable appetite to escape from the "low dark prison" of segmented existence. Some might define this unconscious drive as a passion for participation; others as the revolt against the boredom of life imposed by the dictatorship of the Machine. The "news" purveyed on paper may intensify and temporarily nourish, in vicarious fashion, the hunger for communal participation, and provide a temporary release from the rigors of everyday monotony.

To some thirty millions of Americans, pulp-paper publications offer avenues of release; yet, in the hierarchy of contemporary literature, the "pulps" are relegated to the lowly caste of the untouchable. Disdained by the literary experts, they are preserved in few libraries; they have never been diagnosed by sociologists and psychologists, who remain blandly indifferent to the significance of their widespread and enduring appeal. The "literature" of the subject is sparse and well-nigh inaccessible.

Nevertheless, from the point of view of communication by the printed word, the "pulps" function efficiently. They engage the loyalty of millions of faithful and habitual readers, who vociferously express their approval with reader-response letters, organize themselves into "fan" clubs, even hold annual conventions and trade their cherished fantasies with each other-- even to the extent of printing bibliographies of their preferences and masterpieces of 'futurian literature.

Successful communication may be likened to an electric current. Writer and reader, in such a communal experience, are lifted out of their individual isolation and fused into a single, all-enveloping identity. The I Is transfigured by the We. The reader-response published by the editors of the pulps, if authentic, is adequate testimony of this communal participation. This class of untouchables populates the newsstands with impudent density. The pulps thrive with the hardihood of weeds—or the ambiguous hemp-plant. They bring to mind the words of Hamlet: "... an unweeded garden that grows to seed; things rank and gross in nature possess it merely." The life of the individual pulp is brief, evanescent, ephemeral; but the species spawns and pullulates. Some of them answer the craving for purely physical derring-do: "action" stories, "westerns", aviation adventures. Others purvey ersatz opiates designed to assuage thwarted sexual impulses. Still others indulge in masked orgies of murder, torture, violence, sadism, sterilized and rendered morally innocuous by the automatic triumph of the forces of law and order.

Most fascinating, perhaps, are those pulps devoted to super-realistic "wonder"-- to the weird, the horrendous, the pseudo-scientific, the resurrection of ancient myths and folklore. In these we discover a wild, undisciplined jail-break from the concentration camp of the mundane, a carefree defiance of all the laws of the universe, a flight from the penury of life in three or four dimensions. Here is explosive votalization of repressed imaginations, wrenching off the manacles of Time and Space!

These "scienti-fictions" catapult the reader (by "spaceship") to the remotest reaches of the solar system. With Thomas Traherne the pulpeteer cries out: " 'Tis mean ambition to define a single world: to many I aspire, the one upon another hurld." Some of those "interplanetaries" (the technical name for such tales) transport you in the twinkling of an eye to any one or another of the 1830 (or is it 1381?) planets, asteroids, or planetoids, of our own solar system. You find youself, perhaps, in some "hot spot" in Io City, megalopolis of the planet Jupiter. There (in surreptitious defiance of the interplanetary Gestapo) "space-farers" and "space-rats" carouse and plot. You, reader, are really the hero—a right guy, a regular fellow, a prince among your comrade starrovers. You pick up bits of startling information from "slender snake-like Venusians", lepidopterous Mercurians, or good-natured Brobdingnagian Jovians. You plot the downfall of the Hitlerian dictator of the solar system; and from the sidereal double-talk of five planets you inadvertently learn of a colossal snatch-racket: a gangster-star from the other side of infinity is plotting to kidnap our Brother the Sun! Or you may speed through space-lanes regulated by interplanetary traffic cops to the rescue of some trans-lunar princess. As they thrust out their revolting serpentine feelers toward the princess in distress, you lasso giant man-eating pitcher-plants. Or else you discover the populace of two alien and irreconcilable dimensions battling for the supremacy of our little world. In all these variegated adventures, the naive reader experiences a dilation of consciousness, the expansion of belief beyond the boundaries of the credible, release from that disagreeable little patch of experience men know as the plausible. Credo qui absurdum!

The exhilaration experienced by hardened addicts is suggestive of the ecstatic elevation induced by hashish or marihuana: the soaring into a paradise of Mahomet, the distorted awareness, then weightless, effortless flight, followed by a sudden, chilling drop to reality. The addict feels himself larger, stronger, far freer, the dominant feeling "one of immense joy and liberation." His experience recalls DeQuinceys with laudanum: "The sense of space, and in the end the sense of time, were both powerfully affected. Buildings, landscapes, etc., were exhibited in proportions so vast as the bodily eye is not fit to receive. Space swelled, and was amplified to an extent of unutterable and self-repeating infinity. This disturbed me very much less than the vast expansion of time. Sometimes I seemed to have lived for seventy or a hundred years in one night; nay, sometimes had feelings representative of a duration far beyond the limits of any human experience."

* * *

August Derleth and Donald Wandrei have salvaged the work of two extraordinary "stars" of the pulpwood fiction-factories—H. P. Lovecraft and Clark Ashton Smith. Convinced that Lovecraft (this name is slightly incredible, but it is no nom de plume) was of more than passing significance, Derleth and Wandrei collected thirty-six of his tales (Lovecraft had died in 1937) and submitted the huge manuscript to leading publishers. Most of these promptly rejected the project as a "poor commercial risk." Undismayed, these two young litterateurs set up their own publishing house, the Arkham Press, in Sauk City, Wisconsin. Lovecrafts work (The Outsider and Others) was printed in a bulky volume of 553 closely printed pages, including an introduction and Lovecrafts own exhaustive essay on "Supernatural Horror in Literature."

Whipped on by some inner compulsion to write, Howard Lovecraft passed most of the forty-seven years of his life in an old Georgian house in Providence, Rhode Island, timorously shunning all rough-and-ready contacts with the workaday world. At an early age, through the medium of his own microscopic calligraphy, he began to create his own subjective universe. This imagined cosmos was peopled with ghouls and demons, primordial creatures of Manichean evil surviving from prehistory, or super- cosmic Titans ready to take possession of the human race at some unguarded moment. Lovecraft spun his own endless filature of ink as an armour against the external. He communicated with other sympathetic minds through the medium of letters. With more than two hundred unseen friends he corresponded regularly-- letters of forty, sixty, or seventy sheets of standard typewriter size, covered on both sides with spidery penmanship. Some of these letters grew longer than a full-length novel, bulking from fifty to one hundred thousand words.

Precocious wonder-children create their own imaginary kingdoms, complete with custom, currency and costume. Like them this recluse mapped and charted his own subjective archaeology and fantastic prehistory. The recluse was oppressed by the presence of "Old Ones" who might return to take possession of the human mind and unleash the powers of darkness. "All my stories," Lovecraft confessed, "are based on the fundamental lore or legend that this world was inhabited at one time by another race who, in practising black magic, lost their foothold and were expelled, yet live on outside ever ready to take possession of this earth again." With Arthur Machen he agreed that "it is possible that man may sometimes return on the track of evolution." He found support for his own neurotic sense of doom in Algernon Blackwoods disturbing warning of "a survival of a hugely remote period when consciousness was manifested in shapes and forms long since withdrawn before the tide of advancing humanity—forms of which poetry and legend alone have caught a flying memory and called them gods, monsters, mythical beings of all sorts and kinds."

Lovecrafts tales eventually found publication in such pulpwood publications as Weird Tales, Astounding Stories and others devoted to the supernatural. His financial rewards were infinitesimal, averaging him less than a cent a word. Lovecraft recalls Dunsany, Algernon Blackwood, Arthur Machen and Poe. He overstrains his efforts to strike terror. Like all verbomaniacs, he fails to master his obsessions: he is too wordy, too explanatory, too rhetorical. He is at his best when he retreats into the universe of his own creation, or indulges in flights of pseudo-archaeology and leads his readers in grim expeditions to hunt down traces of the prehistoric malevolence, as embodied in the "Old Ones." Most impressive, in my opinion at least, are "The Call of Cthulhu" and "At the Mountains of Madness." Here he frees himself from the conventions of fiction in its standardized forms, and presents an uncensored testimony of his inner adventures.

"The Call of Cthulhu" is a long narrative of "the Great Old Ones who lived ages before there were any men, and who came to the young world out of the sky. These Old Ones were gone now, inside the earth and under the sea; but their dead bodies had told their secrets in dreams to the first man, who formed a cult which had never died." The story ends with the imagined narrator testifying:

"Cthulhu still lives... again in that chasm of stone which has shielded him since the sun was young. His accursed city is sunken once more... but his ministers on earth still bellow and pranance and slay around idol-capped monoliths in lonely places... Who knows the end? What has risen may sink, and what has sunk may rise. Loathesomeness waits and dreams in the deep, and decay spreads over the tottering cities of men."

In "At the Mountains of Madness" Lovecraft transports us, by plane of course, to the ruins of a lost, primordial, super-cosmic super-city founded by Titans who were both animal and vegetable, a city that formed the primary nucleus and center of some archaic chapter of earths history.

"Here sprawled a Paleogaean megalopolis compared with which the fabled Atlantis and Lemuria, Commoriom and Uzuldaroum, and Olathae in the land of Lamar are recent things of today—not even of yesterday; a megalopolis ranking with such whispered prehuman blasphemies as Valusia, Rlyeh, lb in the land of Mnar, and the Nameless City of Arabia Deserta. As we flew above the tangle of stark Titan towers my imagination sometimes escaped all bounds and roved aimlessly in realms of fantastic associations—even weaving links betwixt this lost world and some of my own wildest dreams concerning the mad horror at the camp."

"The things once rearing and dwelling in this frightful masonry in the age of dinosaurs were not indeed dinosaurs, but far worse. Mere dinosaurs were new and almost brainless objects—but the builders of the city were wise and old, and had left certain traces in rocks even then laid down well nigh a thousand million years-- rocks laid down before the true life of earth had advanced beyond plastic groups of cells—rocks laid down before the true life of earth had existed at all. They were the makers and enslavers of that life, and above all doubt the originals of the fiendish elder myths which things like the Pnakotic Manuscripts and the Necronomicon affrightedly hint about. They were the "Old Ones" that had filtered down from the stars when earth was young—the beings whose substances an alien evolution had shaped, and whose powers were such as this planet had never bred."

The expedition to the "Mountains of Madness" ends with the allegoriical and semi-prophetic admonition: "It is absolutely necessary, for the peace and safety of mankind,that some of earths dark, dead corners and unplumbed depths be left alone; lest sleeping abnormalities wake to resurgent life, and blasphemously surviving nightmares squirm and splash out of their black lairs to newer and wider conquests."

* * *

More arresting, from the point of view of unconscious revelation, is the Californian Clark Ashton Smith, a collection of whose tales (Out of Space and Time) has just been published by Messrs. Derleth and Wandrei. As an explorer of the grotesque, the interplanetary and the trans-dimensional in pseudo-scientific fiction, Smith has for many years enjoyed widespread popularity among pulpwood "fans."

Born in Long Valley, California, Clark Ashton Smith began to write at the age of eleven. Almost wholly self-educated, at seventeen he was selling stories to The Black Cat. Before he was twenty, his first collection of verse was published. This boy-poet of the Sierras soon discovered that juvenile and provincial fame is fickle. He could not live on the acclamation of his admirers. In his twenties, Smith became a journalist, a fruit-picker and packer, a wood-chopper, a typist, a cement-mixer, a gardener, a hard-rock miner, mucker and windlasser. He was past thirty-five when he resumed the writing of short stories as a profession. Then, with publication in Weird Tales of "The End of the Story," he came into his own in prose. The success of this story inspired others—all weird, macabre, fantastic, all flights from "the real."

Smith has tried his hands at all kinds of pseudo-scientific fiction. Throughout his tales, as now collected, the reader is haunted by a sense of gloominess, of isolation. They are, perhaps unconsciously, autobiographical.

In "The Uncharted Isle,", for instance, a shipwrecked sailor is beached upon a strange island of the pacific and finds himself in a jungle that might have been painted by Rousseau le Douanier. The plant-forms are not the palm-ferns, grasses and shrubs native to South Sea islands: leaves, stems, frondage are of archaic types, such as might have existed in former eons, on the sea-lost littorals of Mu. The sailor is overwhelmed with intimidations of a dark and prehistoric antiquity. "And the silence around me seemed to become the silence of deadages and of things that have gone down beneath oblivions tide. From that moment, I felt that there was something wrong about the Island."

The sailor discovers the main town of the strange island, where the inhabitants move about in perplexing and perplexed fashion:

"None of them appeared to notice me; and I went up to a group of three who were studying one of the long scrolls I have mentioned, and addressed them. For all answer, they bent closer above the scroll; and even when I plucked one of them by the sleeve, it was evident that he did not observe me. Much amazed, I peered into their faces, and was struck by the mingling of supreme perplexity and monomaniacal intentness which their expression displayed. There was much of the madman, and more of the scientist absorbed in some insoluble problem. Their eyes were fixed and fiery, their lips moved and mumbled in a fever of perpetual disquiet; and, following their gaze, I saw that the thing they were studying was a sort of chart or map, whose yellowing paper and faded inks were manifestly of past ages... These beings were so palpably astray and bewildered; it was so obvious that they knew as well as I that there was something wrong with the geography, and perhaps with the chronology, of their island."

The poet wanders here in isolation in a silent, alien universe, striving vainly to communicate with his fellow-humans. They live in another age, another dimension, wrapped in their own perplexity. In other tales the pariah wreaks unspeakable revenge upon the Tyrant. In one story the magician calls forth a cavalcade of giant stallions.

"Like a many-turreted storm they came, and it seemed that the world sunk gulfward, tilted beneath the weight. Still as a man enchanted into marble, Zotulla stood and beheld the ruining that was wrought on his empire... Closer drew the gigantic stallions... and louder was the thundering of their footfalls, that now began to blot the green fields and fruited orchards lying for many miles to the west of Ummaos. And the shadow of the stallions climbed like an evil gloom of eclipse, till it covered Ummaos, and looking up, the emperor saw their eyes halfway between earth and zenith like baleful suns that glare down from soaring cumuli."

"The City of the Singing Flame," a tale of trans-dimensional adventure, is weighted with allegorical and mystical implications. After venturing into alien dimensions, following the faraway alluring music of the "singing flame," the narrator wonders why he came back again to the human world.

"Words are futile to express what I have beheld and experienced, amid the change that has come upon me; beneath the play of incalculable forces is a world of which no other mortal is even cognisant. Literature is nothing more than a shadow. Life, with its drawn-out length of monotonous, reiterative days, is unreal and without meaning, now, in comparison with the splendid death which I might have had—the glorious doom which is still in store."

He ventures into the Inner Sphere, in which "... a whole range of new senses had been opened up to me, together with corresponding thought-symbols for which there are no words in human speech... ."

He becomes "a larger, stronger and freer entity, differing as much from my former self as the personality developed beneath the influence of hashish or kava would differ." His dominant feeling is "of immense joy and liberation, coupled with a sense of imperative haste, of the need to escape into other realms where the joy would endure eternal and unthreatened." This trans—dimensional explorer discovers possibilities of "boundless, unforeseeable realms, planet on planet, universe on universe, to which we might attain, and among whose prodigies and marvels we could dwell or wander indefinitely. In these worlds, our brains would be attuned to the comprehension of vaster and higher scientific laws, and states of entity beyond those of our present dimensional milieu."

* * *

In our search for the typical, we are ineluctably led to the un-typical. Even in the naivest of pulp fiction, we detect the unending conflict betweeN the conscious craft and the unconscious drives—the controlled versus the uncontrollable. Were we adepts in academic research, we might trace the mongrel ancestry of this pseudo-scientific allegorizing back through Lord Dunsany and Algernon Blackwood, H. G. Wells, Samuel Butler and Jules Verne, the satirical "futurists" like Eugene Zamiatin (author of We), the Voltaire of Micromegas, and the Swift of Gulliver. On and on, to ever more remote courses, we arrive finally at the Islamic, oral storytellers of the souks, or the anonymous compilers of The Book of a Thousand Nights and One Night.

The origin of all modern expression is always far more ancient than we suppose-- even of the talking moving pictures. So the ephemeral pulps of the newsstands bear a striking analogy to the Arabian Nights. With its subjective universe dominated by Ifrits and djinn (with their magical powers of transforming themselves into beasts, plants or insects), its malicious negation of external morality, its sly fusion of magic and reality, and especially its bold supension of distressingly insistent physical laws, that endless involuted Persian (or Indian) Labyrinth of narrative survives as the most audacious and most captivativing revolt from the objective world even depicted. It entices the reader into a never-never land in which individual responsibility is swept aside, a realm of surcease from iron laws of the dismal sciences, where Euclid and Newton never ventured.

W. B. Yeats once wrote: "Children play at being great and wonderful people, at the ambitions they will put away for one reason or another before they grow into ordinary men and women. Mankind as a whole had a like dream once; everybody and nobody built up the dream bit by bit, and the ancient storytellers are there to make us remember what mankind would have been like, had not fear and the falling will and the laws of nature tripped up its heels... ." But right here and now, under our very eyes, between the lurid covers of the pulps, we find storytellers carrying on the same role-- transforming the concepts of micro-physics and astro-physics into horrendous imps, Ifrits and djinn endowed with the magical powers for enslaving or liberating mankind. Thirty millions or more addicts, through these vicarious adventures, still play, as in the childhood of mankind, at being "great and wonderful people," still seek release from the world outside themselves, a holiday from the "reality" of that external realm, despite the grandeur of all its miracles and the nobility of the myths.

The significance of all this is not limited to mere "literature." Large-scale communication has tended more and more to restrict and thwart the individual, be he writer or reader. The voice of the individual is lost in the whir of the well-lubricated machinery of mass production—even in the mass production of fantasy. Individual can no longer commune with individual, but only with the "masses"—glib symbol of a non-existent entity! Driven to wholesale production of standardized merchandise, the pulpfictioneer strives with all conscious craft to meet the demands and schedules of his publishers. Yet unconscious impulses amid compulsions, suppressed and thwarted in seeking their natural outlet, take their revenge in unconscious ways. As in all fields of art and literature, this clash between conscious endeavor and unconscious revolt generates the readers interest and focusses his attention. Knowingly or unknowingly, the isolated reader, in being reduced to means instead of being respected as an end in himself, shares the suppressed struggle of the writer toward emancipation. This must be one basic reason for the appeal of such writers as Clark Ashton Smith or H.P. Lovecraft, and for the phenomenal prosperity of the pulps.

The pulps are engaged in the mass production of mass dreams. They mock at the piddling, puny, hypocritical plausibility and credibility of the commercial product of the more honored castes of contemporary letters. Here among the ridiculed and rejected, Impartial assay may discover craftsmen who are carrying on the ancient and cryptical tradition of the story-tellers of the Orient.

The pseudo-scientific tale is developing a new school of illustration. The draughts- man is challenged to use all the resources of his imagination—with the most direct and most economical of means. The illustrations from the various pulp periodicals offer encouraging evidence of this super-realistic school. Especially noteworthy are the drawings of Hannes Bok, a young artist who was born near Seattle.

Originally published in VVV, No. 2/3 (March 1943), pp. 62-66.
Reprinted from Radical America, Special Issue (January 1970), pp. 70-77.

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