David E. Schultz
Lovecraft's "Black Magic" quote has long been suspected of being a frabrication. William Fulwiler addressed this problem most recently in his article, "Three Quotations and a Fabrication." He concluded that August Derleth was the originator of the quote, and that a letter from Lovecraft to Harold Farnese somehow figured into its genesis. While Fulwiler has correctly identified the major players in what has turned out to be a comedy of errors, he falls short of solving the puzzle. Therefore, I would like to present the results of my own research on the matter, published initially in Lovecraft Studies in my article, "Who Needs the 'Cthulhu Mythos'?," where I showed that the originator of the "Black Magic" quote was probably Harold Farnese.
August Derleth had written to Farnese on 6 April 1937 requesting the loan of Lovecraft's letters to Farnese, and also asking for information regarding two stanzas from Fungi from Yuggoth that Farnese had set to music. Derleth and Donald Wandrei hoped to publish Lovecraft's letters and began to gather them from Lovecraft's correspondents. Farnese responded to Derleth in a letter dated 8 April saying "In my correspondence files I must have at least two or three of his personal letters. These were voluminous letters and highly instructive and interesting, for which reason I kept them. In one of them, if I am not mistaken, he discussed various technical points of the construction of mystery stories of the higher type." Farnese said that at the time he did not know the whereabouts of the letters but that he would look for them. The Lovecraft collection of Brown University's John Hay Library contains only several letters from Farnese to Lovecraft, from 11 July 1932 to 9 January 1933. Farnese told Derleth his correspondence with Lovecraft was of short duration, so he may not have received many more letters than those he acknowledged to Derleth. (As Dirk Mosig has pointed out, one letter from Farnese merely asked why Lovecraft had not replied to his previous letter.) In fact, Farnese's correspondence with Lovecraft ended before Lovecraft moved from 10 Barnes to 66 College.
In a letter to Derleth dated 11 April, Farnese wrote:
Pursuant to my promise to you . . . I am sending you today whatever correspondence I have of H.P. Lovecraft. I need not stress the fact that these letters should be highly interesting to you, for you will reach this conclusion after having perused them. The correspondence I unearthed from my files consists of two long letters and one postal card. If there was another letter, it has been destroyed, for I recorded the salient points in my scrap-book. It had entirely to do with our plans on collaborating on an opera entitled: Yurregarth and Yannimaid or The Swamp City; we were not sure which name to use.
In the course of this letter, Farnese continued:
HPL had trouble with the dialogue. He wrote: "Dialogue of any form seems to tear the veil that I like to throw over my stories. Somehow, it seems impossible to cling to my technique of the weird, when I must indulge exclusively in dialogue!" -- He also added: "I am fascinated by your project of creating an opera, and wish with all my heart that I could help you. For you, a musician, and I, a writer, seem to see things in the same light. The story and plot of 'The Swamp City' pleases me mightily. I wish with all my heart that I could breathe life into the forms of Yurregarth andYannimaid. And as to the sinister figure of Nickelman, a modernized version of 'Undine' should be a novelty to American audiences." [Emphasis by Farnese]
It seems unlikely that Lovecraft twice used the rather uncharacteristic phrase, "I wish with all my heart." This statement does not appear in either of the two edited letters from Lovecraft to Farnese that appear in Selected Letters IV (566, 22 September 1932; 570, 12 October 1932). Nor does another mawkish statement Farnese attributed to Lovecraft: "I am no student of music, but it warms my soul!" However, we do find statements in Lovecraft's published letters that are suspiciously similar to Farnese's descriptions:
Regarding your suggestion that I cooperate in a musical drama with the score by yourself -- I really feel quite over-whelmed by the force of the compliment! If I were able to do justice to such a enterprise, there is certainly nothing I would rather attempt -- for despite a profound ignorance of music, I am acutely sensible of its ability to enhance the effect of allied forms of expression. But over against this looms the fact that I have no experience whatever in dramatic composition -- & how is a frank novice to evolve anything capable of correlation with the score of an accomplished composer? I am only too well aware that the construction of an effective drama demands a vastly greater fund of technique than one can pick up haphazard from the plays & operas one has casually & uncritically read or witnessed.
Despite my tremendous admiration for things like Dunsany's Gods of the Mountain and O'Neill's Emperor Jones, I have never as yet employed drama as a medium of expression. Probably the reason is that in the sort of work I am trying to do human characters matter very little. They are only incidental details, & can well be left in the puppet stage -- since the real protagonists of my tales are not organic beings at all, but simply phenomena. I doubt if I have the ability to handle human characters in a lifelike way, for they impress my imagination so much less than do the more impersonal forces of nature. This being so, it is clear that dialogue has never been of much use to me. If Ihad characters talk, it would be merely to register through them the abnormal mutations of their environment. To create the living figures necessary to vitalise a music-drama of any ordinary sot, therefore, would seem to me a task definitely beyond me. [Letters IV.72, 22 September 1932]
Did Lovecraft write what Farnese said he wrote in letters that remain unpublished? The words don't sound like Lovecraft's, but why would Farnese not have consulted the very letters he planned to mail even as he was writing to Derleth? Without consulting Lovecraft's actual letters to Farnese, the question cannot be answered with certainty, but it would seem that Farnese may have been paraphrasing, despite the fact that he transcribed the statements as direct quotes.
Derleth used both of the Lovecraft quotes found in Farnese's letter of 11 April in H.P.L.: A Memoir (see p. 40) when discussing the opera Farnese planned to write with Lovecraft, though Derleth referred to it incorrectly as "The Swamp." It would seem that Derleth copied the quotes directly from Farnese's letters to him, instead of Lovecraft's letters themselves.
Farnese's letter of 11 April is also the source for the "Black Magic" quote. As Farnese wrote:
Upon congratulating HPL upon his work, he answered: "You will, of course, realize that all my stories, unconnected as they may be, are based on one fundamental lore or legend: that this world was inhabited at one time by another race, who in practicing black magic, lost their foothold and were expelled, yet live on outside, ever ready to take possession of this earth again." "The Elders," as he called them. [Emphasis by Farnese]
Again, it is difficult to imagine that Farnese would attribute a direct quotation to Lovecraft that he did not actually copy from letters that he owned, but instead wrote down from memory, perhaps hoping at least to capture the essence of Lovecraft's statements to him.
In a letter to Derleth dated 21 April, Farnese acknowledged the return of his Lovecraft letters from Derleth. He again expressed regret at having lost one of the Lovecraft's letters, but said "Yet I am glad to have been able to have given you all the salient points which I noted down in my book of reference. So I am pretty certain that nothing of value has been lost." Regarding Lovecraft's writing, Farnese went on to say, "He always made it clear to me that his endeavors covered a very small area of literature, but as he said in one of his letters submitted to you: 'I insist that it be treated with the same respect as any other corner of writing.'" When Farnese wrote this, he had Lovecraft's letters in hand, yet we find that he misquoted Lovecraft once again. Compare Lovecraft's actual statement from his letter of 22 September 1932:
. . . I have always realised that my especial province is fundamentally a very minor one; & that even if I achieved the level of literature, it would be merely a trivial phase of the "literature of escape." What I do insist upon is that this field, however minor, is a genuine and serious one; & not a mere aspect of naive crudity to be brushed aside by an enlightened age. [Letters IV.69]
Other statements Farnese made in his letters to both Lovecraft and Derleth make him appear to be the source of the "Black Magic" quote and not Lovecraft. For instance, Farnese himself seemed to have had a preoccupation with Black Magic. In his letter to Lovecraft of 7 December 1932 he wrote:
Here is a bit of news which might be of interest to you. One of the local Book Stores (Dawson's) [in Los Angeles] which goes in for collection of rare and out-of-print works, has a book on sale, which I saw one before in my life, in the library of a wealthy collector, the author's name of which I had forgotten. It is the Book of Black Magic and Pacts incl. Rites and Mysteries of Geotic Theurgy, Sorcery and Infernal Necromancy by Arthur Edward Waite. . . . As far as I can remember it contains many invocations, incantations, spells etc. of infernal spirits and how to protect one's self when calling upon such spirits etc. Rather interesting, and perhaps just the proper background for some of your stories.
Farnese's explanation of what attracted him to Lovecraft's writing also sheds light onthe statements he attributed to Lovecraft:
What heightened my interest in HPL's tales and poems was the background (the underlying idea) against which most of his work was painted. He would have called it: "My pantheon." This background is not executed with the bold sweep of a brush, but is of a rather iridiscent [sinc] hue, shimmering through the net-work of his stories ever so palely. His idea of other entities (may we all them a race?) having lived on this globe, but expelled in time through the practice of what we would call Black Magic today. Yet these entities, these Elders, as HPL expressed it, are still "hanging on" in an outer circle, ever ready to take possession of this planet again, whenever an "inroad" should present itself. As he said, he did not dare to be too pronounced about it. A glimmer here, the strand of a cobweb there, was all that he permitted himself. With the light ethereal touch of a Debussy or Griffes he assembled his mosaic stones to lay the tesselated [sic] floor of his stories. [Farnese to Derleth, 21 April 1937]
As we can see, it was Farnese and not Lovecraft, who was obsessed with Black Magic. It is difficult to reconcile the "Black Magic" quote with statements Lovecraft wrote to Farnese. For example, Farnese wrote to Lovecraft: "If I comprehend your work correctly, I take from it the suggestion of an outer sphere (may I call it) of Black Magic, at one time ruling this planet but now dispossessed, awaiting 'on the outside' a chance for possible return" (3 September 1932; Mosig, 112). Lovecraft's letter of 22 September appears to be a direct response to Farnese's query. In it, Lovecraft describes the elements he regularly employed in his fiction:
In my own efforts to crystallise [a] spaceward outreaching, I try to utilise as many as possible of the elements which have, under earlier mental and emotional conditions, given man a symbolic feeling of the unreal, the ethereal, & the mystical -- choosing those least attacked by the realistic mental and emotional conditions of the present. Darkness -- sunset -- dreams -- mists -- fever -- madness -- the tomb -- the hills -- the sea -- the sky -- the wind -- all these, and many other things have seemed to me to retain a certain imaginative potency despite our actual scientific analyses of them. Accordingly I have tried to weave them into a kind of shadowy phantasmagoria which may have the same sort of vague coherence as a cycle of traditional myth or legend -- with nebulous backgrounds of Elder Forces & transgalactic entities which lurk about this infinitesimal planet, (& of course about others as well), establishing outposts thereon, & occasionally brushing aside other accidental forces of life (like human beings) in order to take up full habitation. . . . Having formed a cosmic pantheon, it remains for the fantaisiste to link this "outside" element tothe earthin a suitably dramatic & convincing fashion. This, I have thought, is best done through glancing allusions to immemorially ancient cults & idols & documents attesting the recognition of the "outside" forces by men -- or by those terrestrial entities which preceded man. The actual climaxes of tales based on such elements naturally have to do with sudden latter-day intrusions of forgotten elder forces on the placid surface of the known -- either active intrusions, or revelations caused by the feverish & presumptuous probing of men into the unknown. [Letters IV.70-71]
It seems that Farnese either ignored or forgot what Lovecraft wrote or misinterpreted itin a way that seemed more comprehensible to him, so that when Lovecraft explained what he really meant, Farnese merely considered Lovecraft to be affirming what he already suspected. He may have flet perfectly confident to "quote" Lovecraft from memory, when he instead merely expounded his incorrect interpretation of what Lovecraft said. Or perhaps Farnese's notebook, with its "salient points" from Lovecraft's first letter to him, written down before Lovecraft attempted to clarify his work to him, was the source for the "Black Magic" quote. It should be noted that, in his letters of 3 September 1932 to Lovecraft and of 11 April 1937 to Derleth, Farnese's use of the term "Black Magic" seems hesitant.
It must also be mentioned that Farnese's memory was not a acute as he thought it was. In a letter to Donald Wandrei dated 15 September 1937, Farnese stated that Lovecraft ranked first among the contributors to Weird Tales, and that a writer called "Bellknap Jones" was second. No such author ever contributed material to Weird Tales, and surely Farnese meant Frank Belknap Long. This lapse, and many others in his letters to Derleth, make his paraphrases of Lovecraft's statements very suspect.
Unfortunately, Derleth immediately seized upon the "Black Magic" quote. He first used it in print (with minor changes) in an article written about the time he received Farnese's letter of 11 April 1937, entitled "H.P. Lovecraft, Outsider." In that article Derleth singlehandedly started at least four long-standing errors of fact about Lovecraft: (1) That Lovecraft was an "outsider" or recluse; (2) That Lovecraft created the "Cthulhu Mythos"; (3) That Lovecraft's pseudo-mythology was a clear parallel to the "Christian Mythos"; and (4) That Black Magic was the motivating factor of all Lovecraft's stories. Derleth tirelessly used the Black Magic quote side-by-side with his own description of the "Cthulhu Mythos." When Richard Tierney queried Derleth about the source of the "Black Magic" quote, Derleth became angry. This is understandable. After all, Derleth had been using the quote for more than thirty years, and as far as he knew, it was a statement Lovecraft had made. However, after so long a time, he no longer remembered his source of that statement.
Derleth is certainly to blame for circulating the spurious "Black Magic" quote. However, Harold Farnese must be identified as its originator. There remains a slim possibility that Lovecraft did mae the statement, and unless we find Lovecraft's letters to Farnese we will never know with certainty. However, from the evidence at hand, it appears that Farnese unintentionally misquoted Lovecraft and that he is, in fact, the author of the "Black Magic" quote.
Derleth, August. "H.P. Lovecraft, Outsider." River, 1, no. 3, June 1937.
____________. H.P.L.: A Memoir. New York: Ben Abramson, 1945.
Farnese, Harold. Letters to August Derleth. State Historical Society of Wisconsin.
____________. Letters to H.P. Lovecraft. John Hay Library, Brown University, Providence, RI.
Fulwiler, William. "Three Quotations and a Fabrication." Crypt of Cthulhu # 46, Eastertide 1987.
Lovecraft, H.P. Selected Letters IV. Sauk City, WI: Arkham House, 1976.
Mosig, Dirk. "H.P. Lovecraft: Myth-Maker." H.P. Lovecraft: Four Decades of Criticism, S.T.
Joshi (ed.). Athens, Ohio: Ohio State University Press, 1980.
Schultz, David E. "Who Needs the 'Cthulhu Mythos'?" Lovecraft Studies 13, Fall 1986.
Wandrei, Donald. Letter to August Derleth, 20 September 1937. State Historical Society of
Created: July 1, 1998; Updated: August 9, 2004