H. P. Lovecraft closes the Fungi from Yuggoth sequence tellingly, by restating the utmost limits of human comprehension: “There is in certain ancient things a trace […] A faint, veiled sign of continuities [….]”
Comprised of thirty-six sonnets, nearly all of them written one after the other between December 27 1929 and January 4 1930, the Fungi display thematic unity — but no more to each other than to much of the rest of HPL’s fantastic fiction and verse. The lack of any definite narrative thread more closely binding these sonnets has baffled generations of fans and scholars.
For the novice, a blurb in Ballantine’s 1971 paperback edition of Fungi From Yuggoth and Other Poems explains elegantly, if only just adequately, what HPL accomplished:
At their best, the poems of the late H. P. Lovecraft are little masterpieces of weird narrative, capsuled in sonnet form, as in the thirty-six remarkable FUNGI FROM YUGGOTH and THE MESSENGER, each of which is a chilling tale in verse form with all the spreading implications of Lovecraft’s best fiction.
Why did HPL, in one relatively short burst of creativity, draft nearly all of the thirty-six sonnets?
What do they mean individually?
More importantly, together do they mean something different?
In 1919, versifying became a low priority for HPL, after falling under the influence of Lord Dunsany’s distinctive prose. For years — mainly as personal entertainment — HPL had been churning out eighteenth century-styled poems. As a category, this time-worn aspect of his early writing career serves a purpose for today’s fans only where it illuminates his fiction, essays and letters.
HPL’s motivation for writing fantastic prose or poetry had always been a “striving for emotional emancipation from rigidities and certainties — a reaching toward vague suggestions of liberation and adventurous expectancy on far horizons, and a struggle to crystallise certain moods too ethereal and indefinite for description” — as he stated in a letter to Weird Tales editor Farnsworth Wright dated November 14, 1933.
After reading Dunsany, HPL decided he could accomplish this objective “as well in prose as in verse — often better. It is this lesson which the inimitable Dunsany hath taught me” (HPL to Rhinehart Kleiner: 7 Mar. 1920). From then on, HPL rarely wrote poems, except under extraordinary circumstances.
Fast forward to 1928.
HPL’s return to poetry over a period of twelve or thirteen months (beginning very late in 1928 and ending very early in 1930) was possibly triggered when he began corresponding with the poet Elizabeth Toldridge on October 16 1928, though he also claimed his renewed interest was the result of a poetry treatise he was helping to revise for another correspondent, a teacher named Maurice Moe. Not long after this began (no later than January 1929) HPL wrote a five-stanza weird poem titled “The Wood.”
Perhaps as a direct result of these activities, HPL’s new poems were thoroughly fresh and modern, and superior to those he wrote previously.
But the most likely reason we now have the Fungi sonnets is more straightforward, though still interesting to those people intrigued by Lovecraft’s motivations. Clark Ashton Smith and Frank Belknap Long, fellow writers and personal friends of his, were landing a few poems of their own in the pulp pages of Weird Tales. Soon-to-be-new HPL correspondent Robert E. Howard also sold quite a few. And Donald Wandrei, another personal friend, was in the middle of composing the series of poems that would become Sonnets of the Midnight Hours.
Though Wandrei sold fiction to Weird Tales — the classic “The Red Brain” is one example — his inclination was to write poetry. Wandrei was already corresponding with Smith, and in 1927 he hitchhiked all the way from St. Paul, Minnesota to New York and then to Providence, Rhode Island, to meet HPL and Long (and others) personally.
On January 31, 1928 Wandrei announced in a letter to HPL: “Wright has just taken eleven of the nightmare sonnets, to run as a series, one or two a month, under a standing head” — beginning with the May number of Weird Tales, Farnsworth Wright would use a poem or two by Wandrei every issue for the remainder of that year.
In 1928 five more Robert E. Howard poems were published — Long and Smith one more each.
HPL, whose last poem (other than a Christmas greeting) appeared in Weird Tales way back in 1924, had seen enough. Despite the abiding opinions of some critics, HPL was motivated by more than his “art-for-art’s-sake” philosophy — he wanted sales! Though downplayed, this human side of the artist is everywhere evident. HPL literally crowed anytime a client landed a tale he ghost-wrote or revised, and he began drafting new tales that tied to those published by his fellows, or with mild commercial concessions — the first of these, 1930’s “The Whisperer in Darkness,” not only plays off two stories by Long which were recently published, but surely owes something to the very fact they were accepted by Wright on first submission.
Yes, he wanted sales! HPL was financially a poor man by any standard — he needed the dough!
And Wandrei deserves much of the credit, another reason this author’s influence became far-reaching. Even then it was a well-known fact that Farnsworth Wright fancied himself a connoisseur of sonnets. Not only did Wandrei in this manner “help” HPL achieve one of his few true commercial successes with Weird Tales, but in “The Poetry of Robert E. Howard” Steve Eng notes that Howard’s “horror sonnets may have been influenced by Donald Wandrei’s Sonnets of the Midnight Hours, or by H. P. Lovecraft’s Fungi from Yuggoth … Howard actually did a small series under the title Sonnets Out of Bedlam….”
Today Fungi scholars speak of a “set” of sonnets, composed in a specific “sequence.” They refer to the group we have today as the “complete cycle.”
There’s ample evidence showing the very opposite.
For one thing, HPL didn’t seem to care in what order the finished sonnets were published, nor that any two or more be published together. As late as 1934 (referring to the editor of The Fantasy Fan) he wrote: “I’m going to let [Charles] Hornig take his pick of such of the Fungi as are available — that is, all which have not appeared in periodicals of general circulation. Those printed locally in the Prov.[Providence] Journal, or in the amateur papers, can well bear another appearance” (HPL to Robert Barlow: 7 Sept. 1934).
It would behoove Fungi readers to look over the other fantastic poems HPL composed during this approximately twelve-month-long period for tell-tale relationships. “Recapture” is one of these — obviously, since HPL after-the-fact added it to the cycle — also “The Wood,” “The Outpost,” “The Ancient Track” and “The Messenger”.
These poems were all experiments, false starts — rather than copy Wandrei’s format in Sonnets of the Midnight Hours too closely, HPL initially tried using different formats and lengths.
We know little about “The Wood,” except that it was published very early in 1929, or that it might’ve been written in 1928. Besides inaugurating HPL’s return to versifying, the theme of “The Wood” matches many of the Fungi sonnets.
Late in 1929, HPL circulated three more: “The Outpost,” “The Ancient Track” and “Recapture”:
Meanwhile some malign influence — prob’ly revising that Moe text book on poetick appreciation — has got me invadin’ one of Klarkash-Ton’s provinces & relapsin’ back into my antient weakness of attempted prosody … The title of this beautiful lil’ bullet is “The Outpost,” and the scene is the celebrated continent of Africa — in the days when great cities dotted the eastern coast, and smart Arab and Phoenician Kings reign’d within the walls of the great Zimbabwe — now a mass of cryptic ruins overrun by apes and blacks and antelope — and work’d the illimitable mines of Ophir. But far, far in the interior . . . . . on the never-glimps’d plain beyond the serpent-shunn’d swamp . . . . . rumour hinted that a frightful and unmentionable outpost of THEM brooded blasphemously — and so K’nath-Hothar the Great King, who fear’d nothing, stole thither in secret one night . . . . . though whether he did so in body or in his dreams, not even he can certainly tell…. (HPL to Morton: 30 Nov. [Oct. 30 SL]1929)
The theme is again Fungi-like — moreover, here were overtones of the Cthulhu Mythos, which many of the Fungi also convey.
Following his tentative first batch of poems, HPL churned out thirty-five sonnets, which he numbered and shared freely with correspondents: “But anyhow — the items which illustrate my moods & indicate why no mapped out programme could ever be of any value to me (I should judge) V, (?) XIII, XIV, XVIII, XIX, XXIII, XXVIII, XXX, & XXXIII . . . . . though all the others no doubt reflect various phases, ramifications, & corollaries of the central mood-nucleus” (HPL to Morton: 12 Mar. 1930).
HPL’s decision to move ahead writing sonnets only may have been unwittingly decided by the Weird Tales editor: “By the way … Wright has accepted ‘The Ancient Track’ for eleven bucks, and ‘Recapture’ for $3.50. He turned down ‘The Outpost’ on the alleged ground of excessive length….” (HPL to Morton: 6 Dec. 1929)
Though Wright accepted the 44-line “The Ancient Track,” it is likely HPL weighed “length” against Wandrei’s obvious success with Midnight Hours, and that doing so lead directly to: “The other night I was moved to pen a weird sonnet sequence which I shall soon try on Wright. Here’s the MS. for a preview — please return” (HPL to August Derleth: 27 Dec. 1929).
That the formal sequence was not “mapped out” helps explain why years later HPL conceded to Robert Barlow’s suggestion to add “Recapture.”
And it leaves a question: Would any or all of the other poems discussed above be in the Fungi cycle today, had HPL by chance given them the same form and development? We know that HPL held several of these in high regard: “Now about this matter of The Collected Poetical Works of H. P. Lovecraft … ‘Nemesis’, ‘Recapture,’ ‘The Ancient Track,’ & ‘The Outpost’ are all right for inclusion — & I’ll give a verdict on ‘The Nightmare Lake’ when I have time to burrow for it in my files” (HPL to Barlow: 4 June 1936).
“The Messenger” should also be construed as a potential Fungi. The Ballantine blurb-author quoted above is correct in identifying this poem as a product of the same vein. Though written by HPL for a different purpose, it resonates like many of the member poems. Unfortunately, though it is indeed a 14-line sonnet, “The Messenger” lacks the octave-sestet break of all the other Fungi — possibly the only reason it’s absent.
Taking all of the above into consideration — though primarily because of when they were written and because of their thematic similarities with the official Fungi — it is only logical to regard “The Wood,” “The Outpost,” “The Ancient Track” and “The Messenger” as no less than as proto-Fungi. HPL wisecracks about “The Ancient Track” in a letter to Clark Ashton Smith:
I crack’d off another one — about the way a guy dreams about a place he thinks he knows, only to have the dream leave him flat with the conviction that the whole damn contents of his beezer is illusion & unrelated disjectamembra…. (HPL to Smith: 3 Dec. 1929)
Close after completing Fungi from Yuggoth, HPL made a revealing statement about his methods generally — how he used his “symbolizing faculty to build outward from the existing facts; rearing a structure of indefinite promise and possibility whose topless towers are in no cosmos or dimension penetrable by the contradicting-power of the tyrannous and inexorable intellect” (HPL to Morton: 1 Apr. 1930).
It’s entirely possible HPL had this very tactic in mind when he composed and positioned the first three Fungi, to impute and exploit the quasi-familiar sense of specificity and setting he gives to them — albeit “familiar” in the Lovecraftian sense.
On the other hand, HPL did not feel these three were absolutely necessary, at least not in the case of Weird Tales: “Well — here are your 10 hand-picked Fungi — and may they adorn with appropriate morbidity the unhallowed gardens which bloom betwixt your covers!” (HPL to Wright: Jan. 1930)
HPL may have been satisfied that the recent publication of “The Ancient Track” in the March 1930 Weird Tales and “Recapture” in the May Weird Tales were sufficient to adequately frame the rest (which would follow beginning in September) — another reason to associate these earlier poems with the Fungi.
Now that HPL was doing his own sonnet-series, he admitted it frankly: “Wright has nothing of mine on hand save some verses called ‘Fungi from Yuggoth,’ which will appear in a series like your ‘Sonnets of the Midnight Hours’” (HPL to Wandrei: 30 June 1930).
In correspondence HPL still blamed “the provocation of revising good ol’ Moe’s poetry textbook” for these “doggerel reflections,” though money was definitely a root-impetus:
Of this series of “Fungi from Yuggoth” I’ve sold fifteen — ten to Weird Tales and five to the Providence Journal — at $3.50 each; (25¢ a line) which makes my net profit on ’em exactly $52.50 to date. Not so bad for spontaneous mooning! (HPL to Morton: 12 Mar. 1930)
So what did the Fungi mean to HPL — then — at the beginning? As we learn from the Ballantine book, each is a chilling tale in verse form with all the spreading implications of Lovecraft’s fiction.
As we learn from HPL himself, “They represent an attempt to catch bits of mood & atmosphere — much as my stories do on a larger scale” (HPL to Robert Bloch: Oct. 1935).
But “Star Winds,” one of the Fungi, hints of something more — hints of a single overarching theme — envisioned from the beginning, even if mitigated after allowing sporadic and dispersed publication of the sonnets:
“This is the hour when moonstruck poets know / What fungi sprout in Yuggoth […] Yet for each dream these winds to us convey, / A dozen more of ours they sweep away!”
The selection and arrangement handed down, to which HPL did give his imprimatur, came years after composition of the sonnets, and only because Barlow wished to publish Fungi from Yuggoth in its entirety. HPL gave permission: “Sure — I’d be glad to see them all printed if they could be assembled into such a set as you describe….” (HPL to Barlow: 1 Sept. 1934)
We learn that, besides the sonnets HPL crafted for opening the Fungi sequence, there were — held back unseen — one or two others “suited” for closing: “Enclosed are the ‘Fungi’ — all, that is, which are typed. There are 2 more in MS, somewhere” (HPL to Barlow: 22 Aug. 1934). As with his fiction, HPL wanted his sonnets perfectly transcribed: “As for the two remaining Fungi — here is the sheet, but it’s very doubtful whether you can make anything of it … Better return the scrawl with the typed copies, so that I can make the proper corrections” (HPL to Barlow:1 Dec. 1934).
A year later, as the book project continued to drag on (it would never be completed by Barlow), we still detect this concern — even irritation — about typographical accuracy: “Bless my soul, Sir, but what’s this your Grandpa hears about a Yuletide brochure publish’d without permission or proofreading? An old man’s curiosity is on edge…. (HPL to Barlow: 27 Dec. 1935)
On the other hand — surprising in light of the above — the interior arrangement of the thirty-plus remaining sonnets still appeared to be undecided: “Looking over the Fungi — I think ‘Recapture’ had better be #34 — with ‘Evening Star’ as 35 & ‘Continuity’ as 36. ‘Recapture’ seems somehow more specific & localized in spirit than either of the others named, hence would go better before them — allowing the Fungi to come to a close with more diffusive ideas” (HPL to Barlow:13 June 1936).
As for earlier, had things been different there might have been more of them: “Incidentally — my ‘Fungi’ have just come back … There are 33 here, but I shall probably grind out a dozen or so more before I consider the sequence concluded” (HPL to Toldridge: Jan. 1930).
How could this situation be, unless HPL did not think their number or sequencing to be important?
To understand Fungi from Yuggoth, we need only to have in place the opening sonnets, the keys that open the door, and the closing sonnet, to reflect on where we’ve been — the rest are the journey out through space, up through the dimensions, back through in time, and so much further — into the uninterpretable Unknown. Thus no particular order is necessary to represent the “inter-permeability of the real and dream worlds” (appropriating Kenneth Hite’s words used in Tour de Lovecraft) throughout “Lovecraft’s hyper-dimensional cosmos.”
Modern readers might use the term Multiverse to label this cosmos.
Considering all of the above, is there a rationale that will explain definitively both HPL’s organization of the Fungi and provide its collective meaning?
There are signposts in the record. HPL wrote, “I confess to an over-powering desire to know whether I am asleep or awake — whether the environment and the laws which affect me are external and permanent, or the transitory products of my own brain” (HPL to Maurice Moe: 15 May 1918).
This was before HPL read Lord Dunsany, who in Gods of Pegana wrote: “Whether the dreams and the fancies of Yoharneth-Lahai be false and the Things that are done in the Day be real, or the Things that are done in the Day be false and the dreams and the fancies of Yoharneth-Lahai be true, none knoweth saving only Mana-Yood-Sushai….”
Confusion over what is real and unreal, based on our anthropomorphic predispositions and limits, when it is all real, is part of the big theme of the Fungi:
I do not see how you can fail to be sensitive to these unreal things. Surely the strange excrescences of the human fancy are as real — in the sense of real phenomena — as the commonplace passions, thoughts, and instincts of everyday life. There is a giddy exhilaration in looking beyond the known worlds into unfathomable deeps…. (HPL to Kleiner: 21 May 1920)
HPL combines “ethereal life and planet life” — “ethereal” being the spheres of reality that exist “outside the realm of substance” — time and again in his correspondence and fiction, over the course of his writing career:
Memory and imagination shaped dim half-pictures with uncertain outlines amidst the seething chaos … it was not chance which built these things in his consciousness, but rather some vast reality, ineffable and undimensioned, which surrounded him … There floated … a cloudy pageantry of shapes and scenes which he somehow linked with earth’s primal, aeon-forgotten past. (“Through the Gates of the Silver Key”)
Fungi from Yuggoth is both the depiction and the experience of this Ultimate Reality, filtered through human perception — specifically, the imaginative perceptions of one Howard Philips Lovecraft.
The familiar setting and the flimsy narrative of the first three sonnets is the terrestrial jumping-off point — but it is one which gives way immediately, as human logic and past encounters are left behind — to a universe of chaotic scenes, independent narratives, and internalized moods. Some of the sonnets give the false sense that they are related to others, another few seem rooted to older fantastic pieces by Lovecraft.
Germane to this experience is something else HPL wrote late in his career:
I don’t agree about the importance of plot. Indeed, I believe that — because of the foundation of most weird concepts in dream-phenomena — the best weird tales are those in which the narrator or central figure remains (as in actual dreams) largely passive, & witnesses or experiences a stream of bizarre events which — as the case may be — flows past him, just touches him, or engulfs him utterly (HPL to Henry Kuttner: 16 Apr. 1936).
If “reality is chaos” gives the Fungi from Yuggoth cycle its underlying meaning, this understanding elevates it among HPL’s most representative compositions. “All is chance, accident, & ephemeral illusion,” HPL states, “There are no values in all infinity — the least idea that there are is the supreme mockery of all … for all is chaos, always has been, & always will be” (HPL to Morton: 26 May 1923); and we recall from the fiction: “Aeons reeled, universes died and were born again, stars became nebulae and nebulae became stars, and still Randolph Carter fell through those endless voids of sentient blackness. Then in the slow creeping course of eternity the utmost cycle of the cosmos churned itself into another futile completion, and all things became again as they were unreckoned kalpas before” (Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath).
It was HPL’s motivation to illustrate this via the deliberate non-arrangement of the interior sonnets when he organized Fungi from Yuggoth for posterity. Any similarities among this large majority of the sonnets is not something discerned, but falsely imputed, more often deceiving than not.
What could be more Lovecraftian?
In fact, here is the poet’s experience in “The Ancient Track.” Either physically or by dreaming, he steps off of the road leading to Dunwich, steps out into a world he doesn’t recognize, and then up to the stars of the Milky Way, and ultimately into the Void.
As HPL explained to Clark Ashton Smith, the poet realizes that all he ever thought he knew, any meaning he ever imagined, is simply illusion — fabricated from the flotsam & jetsam of a reality no human will ever comprehend, but which with the Fungi HPL so wonderfully depicts.