Monday, January 09, 2006

Lovecraftiana: G P Serviss & Nova Persei

I was re-reading Beyond the Wall of Sleep [1] yesterday. I smiled as I read the Lovecraftian vocabulary with the likes of "terraqueous" and "matutinal aberrations". HPL is at his pure elitist worst when he mentions the "white trash" of the Catskills [2]. I shook my head at the names of the rustics and allusions to racial degeneracy. Slater (or Slaader) lives next door to a neighbor named Slader! Like the old ethnic joke about Kentucky (my state): three million people, five last names.

However, today, let's discuss Nova Persei. The picture below was taken recently by the Palomar Observatory. Lovecraft enjoyed placing real astronomical events in his stories in order to give them a cosmic relevance. Somewhere out there, a conflict raged between ancient races, much the same as HPL's beloved Teutons battled the even more loved British in The War to End All Wars. As usual, we find a man of science and good breeding is contrasted with an oaf of a man. Slater is anhilated, but the sientist is rewarded with a transcendental translation to the outer realms.

HPL cribbed a large section of the story from his Astronomy [3] text. The passage [4] reads:

I will quote the following account of the star Nova Persei verbatim from the pages of that eminent astronomical authority, Professor Garrett P. Serviss: "On February 22, 1901, a marvelous new star was discovered by Doctor Anderson of Edinburgh, not very far from Algol. No star had been visible at that point before. Within twenty-four hours the stranger had become so bright that it outshone Capella. In a week or two it had visibly faded, and in the course of a few months it was hardly discernible with the naked eye."

Garrett Putnam Serviss was a scientifiction writer and scientist. HPL was a huge fan, and said so as early as 1914, " I have read every published work by Garrett P. Serviss, own most of them, and await his future writings with eagerness...". Please, Lovecraft fans, read the entire letter. [5 ]

It is interesting that this spectacular event also caught the imagination of Charles Fort in one of his books. He wrote much of it and the dust associated with its appearance. HPL was not influenced by Fort, and did not read the book Lo! until years later [6].

[7] Star after star has appeared, as a minute point, or as a magnificent sight in the heavens, and the professional astronomers have been unobservatory ... Night of Feb. 22nd -- and ... looked up at the constellation Perseus ... It was a magnificent new star ... a splendor that scintillated over stupidity -- not a professional, at any of this earth's Observatories, knew of this spectacle, until informed by Dr. Anderson. Usually it is said that Dr. Anderson discovered this star, but his claim has been contested. In Russia, it was recorded that, nine hours earlier ... the new star had been discovered by Andreas Borisiak, of Kieff. Andreas was a schoolboy. Before the discovery of this new star in Perseus, or Nova Persei, there had been appearances like volcanic phenomena, unattributable, however, to any volcano of this earth. ... deep-greenish-yellow clouds, ... Upon the 16th, a black substance fell from the sky, in Michigan ... At Naples, three persons were found to have frozen to death, night of the 13th ... a red substance fell with snow, near Mildenhall ... It may have been functionally transmitted organic matter. "Pigeons seemed to feed upon it."

The entity that was trapped in Slater's body is loosed to seek vengeance upon another race near Algol, the demon star. So this nova (and one ignores that light travels only so fast - HPL had not come to grips with Einstein - but more on that some other day) explodes heralding a new war. This is a true Mythos story of elder races at war, but one not always lumped into the Cthulhu continuum.

I hope you get a chance to reread it soon, too. If so post your comments!
[1] Lovecraft wrote BtWoS in the Spring of 1919 and had it published in Pine Cones in the Ocober 1919 issue.
[2] HPL had just read "How Our State Police Have Spurred Their Way to Fame" by F.F. Van de Water, New York Tribune (27 April 1919); Sec. VII, pp.2-3. {in H. P. Lovecraft: Letters to Alfred Galpin, Joshi & Schultz, 2003, p. 92. He reports this to the Galomo in the April 1919 circular.
[3] Astronomy with the Naked Eye, 1908, a book Lovecraft used and cherished.
[4] Joshi confirms that Lovecraft cribbed Serviss' account from his astronomy book in An H.P. Lovecraft Encyclopedia, Joshi & Schultz, 2001, p.19
[6] HPL letter to Wandrei April 27, 1931 . Mysteries of Time and Space, Joshi & Schultz
[7] Charles Fort, Lo! Third book in a series of odd events, published in 1931.

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