The Lovecraft Reread

The Horror of Improper Preservation Technique: H.P. Lovecraft and Winifred V. Jackson’s “The Green Meadow”

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Welcome back to the Lovecraft reread, in which two modern Mythos writers get girl cooties all over old Howard’s sandbox, from those who inspired him to those who were inspired in turn.

This week, we’re reading H.P. Lovecraft and Winifred V. Jackson’s “The Green Meadow,” written in 1918 and 1919 and first published in the Spring 1927 issue of The Vagrant. Spoilers ahead.

“Though I saw about me objects which I could name—trees, grass, sea, and sky; I felt that their relation to me was not the same as that of the trees, grass, sea, and sky I knew in another and dimly remembered life. The nature of the difference I could not tell, yet I shook in stark fright as it impressed itself upon me.”

We open with an “Introductory Note” of considerable length, necessary due to the extraordinary circumstances which brought to light the narrative in question.

On August 27, 1913, a mammoth fireball fell from the heavens into the sea off Potowonket, Maine. Four days later, fishermen retrieved a mass of metallic rock. Most linked it to the fireball, and local scientist Dr. Richard Jones allowed that the rock did look like meteoric stone. While chipping off specimens for analysis, however, Jones found a strange embedded object resembling a notebook. The covers were of a dark stony substance, unbreakable and unknown to geologists. The leaves were thin to the point of flexibility but untearable. How the book was bound remains a mystery.

The leaves bear writing in a cursive hand paleographers determined to be common to the second century B.C.; the language is ancient Greek “of the purest classical quality.” Paleographer Rutherford rendered the script into modern Greek letters; from this form, it has been translated as literally as possible into English.

As to the nature of the notebook’s rocky bearer, experts disagree. MIT’s Mayfield declares it a true meteorite. Dr. von Winterfeldt of Heidelberg doesn’t concur. Columbia’s Bradley posits that the large quantities of utterly unknown materials render classification impossible. As to the notebook, an unfortunate accident has complicated its deciphering. In efforts to analyze the chemistry, the late Professor Chamber of Harvard effaced the last several pages before they could be read—a “well-nigh irreparable loss.”

What remains of the cryptic narrative follows, in the hope some reader may be able to interpret it.

Unnamed narrator finds himself in a strange place without memory of how he got there—indeed, scarcely able to recall his name and rank. It’s a narrow space between a billowy sea and an ancient forest of grotesquely green trees. The sea’s “vaporous exhalations” coalesce with the sky. The forest stretches without visible end inland and to each side of the narrator’s narrow tract; some trees extend into the water itself.

Narrator sees no living thing, hears only wind and sea. He remembers things he read, learned, dreamed in a distant life. He thinks of how he would gaze at the stars and curse the gods that his “free soul could not traverse the vast abysses which were inaccessible to [his] body.” He conjured “ancient blasphemies” and delved into the papyri of Democritus. Now he shudders to be so horribly alone, except—is he? Around him he senses “sentient impulses of vast, vague kind” and fancies the trees murmur “malignant hatred and demoniac triumph,” as if in “horrible colluquy with ghastly and unthinkable things which” their “scaly green” bodies hide from sight if not from consciousness. He’s oppressed by “a sinister feeling of alienage”: these trees, sea, and sky don’t relate to him like the ones he knew before.

Out to sea he spots the Green Meadow. While he stares, the ground beneath him moves with a “throbbing agitation” suggestive of “conscious action.” The bit of bank on which he stands sloughs off the mainland and is borne away as if by “some current of resistless force.” At first he’s glad to leave the hateful and hating forest behind, but as he approaches the Meadow isle, he notices that his own islet is crumbling away. From far ahead comes the roar of such a cataract as would result from the fall of the entire Mediterranean into “an unfathomable abyss.” Yet he doesn’t fear dying, for he senses “death would be death to [him] no more.”

Terrible things ensue back on the mainland. Dark vaporous “sky-forms” engage the forest in “a demoniac tempest where clashed the will of the hellish trees and what they hid” with the sky and sea. Ultimately sky and sea triumph, while the land and trees vanish.

Narrator’s attention is drawn back to the Green Meadow by the sound of singing. Although he can’t distinguish the words, he associates them with lines from an Egyptian book about “forms of life” in the earth’s earliest youth. Then there were things that “thought and moved and were alive, yet which gods and men would not consider alive.” He both hopes and fears to behold the singers.

His islet continues to melt away. No problem: Narrator’s sure he’s somehow “overleaped the bounds of mortality and corporeal entity, becoming a free detached thing.” He’s become “a traveller just embarked upon an unending voyage of discovery.” He considers “strange ways” he could relate his adventures to the people left behind, even if he never returns himself.

Among the “omnipresent verdure-rocks” of the Meadow, he begins to make out huge shapes that move and vibrate. It’s these shapes that sing—when narrator sees them clearly, he remembers everything! He can’t relate the “hideous solution” of all that has puzzled him, for it would drive the reader as mad as it almost drove him. He’s passed through a change other men have also undergone; in the “endless cycle of the future which none like [him] may escape,” he’ll live forever, even as his soul begs for the boon of oblivion. Beyond that cataract lies “the land of Stethelos, where young men are infinitely old.” The Green Meadow… he must send a message back “across the horrible immeasurable abyss…”

[And here the text becomes illegible.]

What’s Cyclopean: The forest exudes “malignant hatred and daemoniac triumph.” Not only that, but the land is involved in a “daemoniac tempest” with the trees.

The Degenerate Dutch: Dr. von Winterfeldt of Heidelberg is interned in 1918 as a dangerous enemy alien, presumably during World War I. It’s not clear by who, or whether it’s at all relevant to his opinion on meteors.

Mythos Making: The land of Stethelos, in the Dreamlands, is also briefly mentioned in “The Quest of Iranon.”

Libronomicon: Narrator hints that he got here via rituals from the papyri of Democritus, as well as an Egyptian book drawing from a papyrus of Meroë (this one, in particular, stands out as a “strange book”).

Madness Takes Its Toll: Narrator is afraid he’ll go mad if he understands where he is. Eventually, when he figures out some of what’s going on, he almost does. But don’t worry; he’s not going to tell us.

 

Anne’s Commentary

Though “The Green Meadow” didn’t see publication until 1927, Lovecraft worked on it between 1918 and 1919, at which time he was corresponding with fellow amateur journalist and poet, Winifred Virginia Jordan (nee Jackson and soon to return to that surname following her divorce from Horace Jordan). To add to the confusion, both Lovecraft/Jackson collaborations (“Green Meadow” and “The Crawling Chaos”) appeared under their pseudonyms, Lewis Theobald, Jun. and Elizabeth [Neville] Berkeley. I glean that Jackson was the first woman with whom Lovecraft collaborated, “collaborated” here meaning that Lovecraft composed the stories based on some back-and-forth with Jackson.

Even the “back-and-forth” is of a singular nature. Lovecraft writes that he had a dream about “a terrible forest, a sinister beach, and a blue, ominous sea.” As was frequently his modus operandi, he tried basing a short story on the dream but stalled out after the first paragraph. When he sent the opening to Jackson, she reported having a nearly identical dream, except hers went on well past the point where his ended. What an astonishing coincidence! What sympathy of imaginations, right? More or less. Lovecraft would later confide in Alfred Galpin and James Morton that he “could swear that [Jackson] had no such dream till she had seen my account.” Although, as gentlemanly Howard adds, she might have had the dream right afterwards and honestly believed she’d had it before.

“The Crawling Chaos” was also (per Lovecraft) the result of her dream-continuation of one of his own dreams. Could be, I don’t know. The ways of the Dreamlands are strange and convoluted. On to the meat of the tale, which like a chicken’s comes in two “flavors,” the “light” of the relatively dry-and-factual opening and the “dark” of the fevered-and-fervent narrative.

After adopting Jackson’s dream-outline, Lovecraft added the “Introductory Note” to “Green Meadow.” His was the notion that the mysterious narrative would arrive via aerolite. That makes sense if the narrator was indeed transported to another planet with no means of transmitting his story via the customary methods of bottle or entombed parchment or addendum to dusty tome. Besides, a meteorite-carrier is cooler—Lovecraft would later use one to deliver a still more Colorful package. He took care that narrator’s notebook was tough enough to withstand its interstellar journey and added verisimilitude through the liberal name-dropping of scholars from prestigious institutions. But Harvard, why? How could you ever grant tenure to a bumbling oaf like the late Professor Chambers? No wonder he’s deceased—the rest of the academic world must have swarmed him like fire-bullet ant hybrids for destroying the last pages of history’s most momentous missive! If the vicious stings of their outrage didn’t kill him, his own shame should have. Come on, Chambers, you were chemically farting around with the notebook before anyone had made a transcript, or even read it to the end? Unforgivable, unless—unless you read to the end, and it was an end so terrible that you sacrificed your reputation to saving mankind from things-better-left-unknown. Then, zero-to-hero, old chap.

Whoever wrote the “Introductory Note” urges us all to take a shot at interpreting the narrative. I’m game. As Lovecraft’s later Dreamlands tales will warn us, obsessing over leaving the mundane world for fantastic destinations or “vast abysses” of space generally leads to dire or at least melancholy consequences. As most of his work cautions, little good can come of conjuring “ancient blasphemies” and “terrible delvings” into anyone’s papyri. Also, know what? Living forever, even in the Stethelos of eternal (apparent) youth, must grow wearisome at last.

But beyond these premonitions of the Dreamlands, I see faint foreshadowings of later Lovecraft masterworks, particularly “The Whisperer in Darkness” and “The Shadow Out of Time.” Is shaking off the jealous grip of Earth worth giving up the physical body and journeying as a canned brain? Is it worth avoiding species extinction if you have to repeatedly doom other species to perish in your place? How about the individual bodies your scouts and researchers “borrow,” leaving their owners’ consciousnesses stranded in utterly alien forms? Think about the plights of those stranded consciousnesses, even after reunion with their bodies. Think about “the endless cycle of the future which none like me may escape.” Both the Yuggothians and the Yith may look forward to endless cycles of the future, but do we know that none of them regret this? Insufficient data, at least from Wilmarth and Peaslee, to make a determination for the aliens, but the prospect both intrigues and daunts those merely human narrators.

As it ends up daunting the narrator of “Green Meadow.”

Oh, last bit of speculation, which I’ll bet I share with many interpreters of the Greek’s notebook. The endless forest is one humongous being, largely submerged in the sea (which may be another humongous being), only its back exposed. And its back is covered with scaly green projections that just look like trees, and of course the forest-being hosts parasites or symbionts among its cilia that are equally malign-feeling to narrator. Why not? Scaling the hangers-on to the host, they must be quite big enough to devour a human.

And whatever’s singing in the Meadow might not be so much better, after all….

 

Ruthanna’s Commentary

I just handed in a book late. If someone had only explained that I could simply end it whenever with the dual authorial claims of “you’ll go mad if I tell you,” and “some jerk screwed up the chemical analysis on the manuscript,” it could have been on time. On the other hand, the edit letter would’ve been very short.

Lovecraft and Jackson wrote two stories together, and I’m kind of glad it wasn’t more because, while they’re both trippy, apocalyptic mood pieces that are reasonably effective at evoking your desired trippy, apocalyptic mood, there are only so many times we can go over this same territory. I mean that literally, since both stories feature a narrow strip of land leading inexorably to an unnatural ocean. In “The Crawling Chaos” the land is girded by washed-out red cliffs as the ocean eats and is eaten by the land, while in “The Green Meadow” it’s bordered by terrifying forest that is eaten by the sky and sea. In one the opium-flown narrator is carried away into the sky but screws up by looking back; in the other the narrator seems to have got himself into his fix via bad-idea rituals, and screws up by learning that [redacted]. And then he heads on toward the Dreamlands, which TCC’s narrator loses the chance for. But I feel like we really don’t need a third variation to appreciate the basic tune.

I do wonder what pushed Lovecraft and Jackson to finally send this one out for publication. It was written at least two years before “Chaos” was published, yet itself was published six years later in another amateur zine. Possibly The Vagrant had an emergency blank page? [ETA: This hypothesis supported by the exasperated “finally” on the issue’s cover date.] Pseudonyms “Berkeley” and “Theobald” must have ended up with an extremely niche reputation.

But really, the most horrifying thing in this story of cursed immortality and creepy forest/ocean battles is the archival technique. I can’t blame the varied institutions in the opening for squabbling over an extraordinary artifact. Miskatonic University is not involved, for the reason of not yet having made its ivy-covered way into Lovecraft’s work at the time of writing. However, I count one local scientific authority followed by Professor Chambers at Harvard, paleolographer Rutherford (no affiliation given), Professor Mayfield of MIT, Dr. Winterfeldt of Heidelberg, and Professor Bradley of Columbia, all variously analyzing the text and composition of the strange notebook. (It is, fairly obviously to close readers, from wherever the Yith get their stationary.) But somehow, amid all those academic experts, Chambers plays around with destructive chemical analysis before anyone gets to copy down the letters. Photography exists at this time, and would not have taken long—or just hand-copying everything as they eventually do with the rest. Librarians everywhere are screaming and gibbering at the thought, along with those of us attached to the idea that dreadful revelations ought to be… revealed, maybe. Unless perhaps… does Chambers have reason to keep an eye out for madness-inducing texts?

As is, we’re left to infer that… what? Our narrator is going to wander around the Dreamlands in spirit form before eventually being turned into a green singer on the green meadow? Lots of afterlives involve a lot of singing; it’s not clear why this one is necessarily worse than most. He’s going to end up back in “Earth’s earliest youth” as his own millions-of-greats-grandpa? As madness-inducing revelations go, it’s hard to tell why this one holds up against the competition we detailed last week.

 

Next week, we observe the start of the school year by escaping academia for… what? …in William Browning Spencer’s “The Essayist in the Wilderness.” You can find it in New Cthulhu.

Ruthanna Emrys is the author of the Innsmouth Legacy series, including Winter Tide and Deep Roots. Her short story collection, Imperfect Commentaries, is now available from Lethe Press. You can find some of her fiction, neo-Lovecraftian and otherwise, on Tor.com, most recently “The Word of Flesh and Soul.” Ruthanna is online on Twitter and Patreon, and offline in a mysterious manor house with her large, chaotic household—mostly mammalian—outside Washington DC.

Anne M. Pillsworth’s short story “The Madonna of the Abattoir” appears on Tor.com. Her young adult Mythos novel, Summoned, is available from Tor Teen along with sequel Fathomless. She lives in Edgewood, a Victorian trolley car suburb of Providence, Rhode Island, uncomfortably near Joseph Curwen’s underground laboratory.

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