“Burning Mist and Golden Mire” — Part One

Conceived and bred in blackened pits of hell,
The poems come that set the stars on fire;
Born of black maggots writhing in a shell
Men call a poet’s skull – an iron bell
Filled up with burning mist and golden mire.

Robert E. Howard, “Which Will Scarcely Be Understood”

Having finished my previous post here with some speculation as to who built the eerie house that had such a malign influence on the boy Justin Geoffrey, I think it’d be fitting to continue with a post about Howard’s mad poet. REH’s fragment “The House” is filled with information about Geoffrey’s background and early life that is priceless to any researcher. Lovecraft supplied some authoritative “facts” about Geoffrey too, as in “The Thing on the Doorstep.”

“The House” was never published in REH’s lifetime. If he’d revised it for printing, a couple of things might have been different. For instance, Conrad says that Justin Geoffrey met “his death at the age of twenty-one”. But we’re also told that Justin “finished high school” before he left the family home, and was down-and-out, starving, in Greenwich Village at the age of seventeen. That leaves a gap of four years. But he travelled to Hungary, which must have been after his time in Greenwich Village, and “looked too long at the Black Stone.” His death in a madhouse was five years after that. “The Black Stone” tells us so, and since that story was published while Howard lived (Weird Tales, November 1931), it has to be given more weight. Besides, in “The Thing on the Doorstep” (Weird Tales, January 1937) Lovecraft refers to “the notorious Baudelairean poet Justin Geoffrey, who wrote “The People of the Monolith” and died screaming in a madhouse in 1926 after a visit to a sinister, ill-regarded village in Hungary.”

For those reasons I tend to accept the usual dates for Justin Geoffrey’s life – 1898 to 1926 – and to think that he was twenty-eight when he died, not twenty-one.

Glitches in chronology aside, “The House” tells us much about Geoffrey’s ancestry and siblings. The Geoffrey family came to America in the late 17th century “to rebuild their fortunes.” It’s probable that, if they were West Country folk and Protestant, they were accused of treason after the Monmouth Rebellion of 1685 and deprived of lands and wealth, a couple at least being sentenced to slavery in the West Indies, like Captain Blood in Sabatini’s novel. When James II was deposed in favor of William of Orange in 1688, the transported Geoffreys were pardoned, and their relatives came to the Indies to ensure their release according to the law. Afterwards – I assume – they all moved to New York. A stolid, middle class breed even then, for they seem to have been minor country gentry, not aristocrats, they became merchants and prospered in the new land.

At the 19th century’s end, when Justin was born, his parents evidently lived in Poughkeepsie. The fragment doesn’t mention that city, but it seems likely for several reasons. The experience which changed the ten-year-old Justin so markedly took place at “a small village in New York State – up close to the foot of the Catskills.”  His family was visiting friends there. That area is close to Poughkeepsie. One of Justin’s sisters graduated from Vassar College, located in Poughkeepsie. The town is, and was then, a center of commerce and manufacturing, well suited to the kind of people Justin’s kin are described as being.

When my series on Helen Tavrel ended, I imagined she had married her companion, Stephen Harmer, and went with him to Massachusetts. They prospered in the shipping business. It’d be nicely ironic if a descendant of theirs with the maiden name of Harmer had been Justin Geoffrey’s mother – that conventional brood springing from a pirate hellcat!  Maybe the Harmers covered up Helen’s past – in her own day, because it would have meant a noose for her, in later generations because they didn’t want the shame made public.

In passing, Conrad was too cocksure that his investigation of the Geoffrey line was complete. Unknown to their posterity, there could easily have been a bastard of some poet, gambler or madman in there some-where. It happens in the best families, more often than ever gets into the record. Conrad also seems to have investigated the Geoffrey family line more thoroughly than the mother’s side, which he hardly mentions except to say, “… sober, industrious merchants. Both of his parents are of this class, and likewise his brothers and sisters.”

The description of those siblings bears that out. “His brother John is a successful banker in Cincinnati. Eustace is the junior partner of a law firm in New York, and William, the younger brother, is in his junior year in Harvard, already showing the ear-marks of a successful bond salesman. Of the three sisters of Justin, one is married to the dullest business man imaginable, one is a teacher in a grade school and the other graduates from Vassar this year. Not one of them shows the slightest sign of the characteristics which marked Justin. He was like a stranger, an alien among them.”

After he was ten, maybe. Until then, “he was no whit different from his brothers.”  He even changed physically. Before, “He had the same stubby build, the same round, dull, good-natured face. One would think a changeling had been substituted for Justin Geoffrey at the age of ten!”  (Robert E. Howard, “The House”)

That’s pretty definite. Conrad was fascinated by Justin Geoffrey’s case. Kirowan credits Conrad with “deep knowledge of biology and psychology,” so he must have had a good education which includes those fields. He had certainly been in Vienna – Sigmund Freud’s town, of course – and may have studied there under Professor von Boehnk, whom he mentions in “Dig Me No Grave.”

When Justin was ten, he went fishing with a group of other boys near that small village near the foot of the Catskills, became separated and lost, and slept the night in a grove of oaks surrounding an abandoned old house. Kirowan recognizes “those tall sombre oaks, with the castle-like house half concealed among them” from a painting by the artist Humphrey Skuyler, a friend of his and Conrad’s. This blogger’s theories about “The House” and its builder can be found in the post “Who Are Those Guys?”  Briefly, I think he was a misbegotten warlock, one of the evil, sorcerous van der Heyl family (HPL, “The Diary of Alonzo Typer”) on his mother’s side, and a xenophobic Martense (HPL, “The Lurking Fear”) on his sire’s. The faintly Oriental architecture of “The House” was due to the man’s having spent years in the Dutch East Indies, particularly the Aceh sultanate in Sumatra.

It isn’t a pleasant structure. “It made me shudder,” says Kirowan. “It fairly exudes an aura of abnormality,” says Skuyler. “A ring of tall, gnarled oaks entirely surrounded the house, which glimmered through their branches like a bare and time-battered skull,” adds Kirowan for good measure.

Something evidently haunted the place. Perhaps the ghost of its former inhabitant, perhaps some waif of the outer dark he had conjured while working his magic, perhaps just the baleful influences of the demons with whom he trafficked in his life and the enchantments he had carried out. But the circumstantial evidence was strong that whatever it was entered the mind of the boy who slept among the oaks and worked in him like yeast afterward.

When found among the oaks next morning, Justin was seemingly unharmed, and there were no signs of trauma. He only said he had vivid and extraordinary dreams “which he could not describe”. He continued to have “wild and fearful dreams which occurred almost nightly” as Conrad says. He also remarks in a disparaging way, “This alone was unusual – the Geoffreys were no more troubled with nightmares than a hog is.” He’s clearly out of sympathy with the prosaic Geoffreys, and refers to their home as a “stifling environment”. It’s easy to perceive REH’s own attitude to the environment of small town Texas, in which he felt trapped and from which he sought escape in his writing, in this fragment.

And his fictional mad poet began to write. Aged eleven, in fact, he penned a poem which included the stanza:

“Beyond the Veil, what gulfs of Time and Space?

What blinking, mowing things to blast the sight?

I shrink before a vague, colossal Face

Born in the mad immensities of Night.”

His family didn’t approve, and tried to stop him writing. Conrad is scathing about their response, but I can’t see that they were wrong to suspect lines like that, especially after his big brother John thumped on him for neglecting his chores to write, and Justin turned on the bigger boy ferociously and struck him – perhaps with something hard and sharp, although we aren’t told – and left John with a scar he still carried as an adult. Even Conrad admits that “Justin’s temper was sudden and terrible.”  All since that night in the oaks outside the deserted house. “His eyes blazed with an inner passion and his tousled black hair fell over a brow strangely narrow. That forehead of his was one of his unpleasant features. I cannot say why, but I never glanced at that pale, high, narrow fore-head that I did not … suppress a shudder!”

Puberty and adolescence can certainly account for changes in temperament and physique. Adolescence can be hell, and a lot of us were nothing but prickly, edgy nerve endings, resenting any restraint or intrusion, while we went through it. But none of Justin Geoffrey’s siblings were misfits as extreme as he, just as none showed his precocious talent. The others went through high school, worked diligently if unimaginatively, and went on to college. Justin finished high school unwillingly and refused even to consider college. He rejected mathematics, ignored science, and paid no attention to modern history. But he avidly read everything he could find on the subjects of myth, magic and – I shouldn’t be surprised – ancient and medieval history. Doubtless he shone without effort at English.

Soon after completing high school, he seems to have left Poughkeepsie, and gone to Greenwich Village – a Mecca for unconventional artists and bohemians in general, though there was considerably more to the area – in New York. That would have been in 1914, as the Great War began in Europe, though Justin Geoffrey paid little attention to it. 1914 was also the year Isadora Duncan, dancer and social rebel, came to the United States, and Justin admired her. He possibly knew Duncan had met the occultist Aleister Crowley a few years before, and that Crowley even had an affair with Duncan’s close companion Mary d’Este. It isn’t recorded, though, that Geoffrey ever encountered them.

It is recorded that Geoffrey corresponded with Edward Pickman Derby of Arkham, who at twenty-five was “a prodigiously learned man and a fairly well known poet and fantaisiste though his lack of contacts and responsibilities had slowed down his literary growth by making his products derivative and over-bookish.” (Lovecraft, “The Thing on the Doorstep”) The critics never viewed Derby’s work as equal in genius or power to Justin Geoffrey’s. But unlike Geoffrey, Derby had parents who indulged him and even took him to Europe on annual journeys. Derby was eight years Geoffrey’s senior, and Derby’s friend and confidante Daniel Upton was eight years older again.

The Village abounded in artists, poets and playwrights. They should have been more congenial to Justin’s temperament than the people he had known in Poughkeepsie, but even in Greenwich Village he found none of the sympathetic affiliations he might have expected. Some “bohemians” he met were as mediocre as anybody in the Poughkeepsie he loathed, pretentious, without a quarter of his talent. Some recognized this and were jealous. Nor was Justin, an intense misfit, a loner whose “temper was sudden and terrible”, haunted by awful dreams and visions from “the mad immensities of Night”, easy to like. In Greenwich Village he was first on record as saying that he was likely to die in a madhouse.

While in Greenwich Village, too, he discovered the poetry of Edward Pickman Derby. The coddled Arkham recluse had published, at eighteen, a collection of poems under the title Azathoth and Other Horrors. That, curiously, had been the same year Justin Geoffrey slept among the oaks outside the old house near the Catskills. Justin read Derby’s poems, wrote to him, and so their correspondence began.

The Golden Goblin Press of New York had brought out an edition of von Junzt’s Unaussprechlichen Kulten (under its English title of Nameless Cults) in 1909. It was lavishly illustrated by Diego Vasquez, and splendidly bound, but fully a quarter of the original material had been excised, as REH informs his readers in “The Thing on the Roof.” Besides, the artistic standards of the publishers had run away with them, and their edition cost too much to sell widely. Justin Geoffrey was not only penniless at the time; he was starving. He perused the edition at the lodgings of one of his Village acquaintances who, flush at the time, had bought the book, chiefly for the Vasquez illustrations. It filled his mind with a craving to study the original of which Derby had told him.

Edward Derby may have saved Justin’s life at that time, indirectly at least. Reading between the lines of Justin’s letters, he realized the boy’s distress. While too impractical and reclusive to take action himself, Derby asked his friend Daniel Upton to visit the youth on his next trip to New York City. Upton complied, and found Justin Geoffrey in a bad way, not only malnourished but haunted by the grotesque nightmares which had begun that night in the Catskills six years earlier.

Geoffrey went to Arkham with Upton and lodged with Edward Derby during 1915. This was years before Derby’s ill-fated attraction to Asenath Waite, which eventually led to Upton’s sending six bullets through Derby’s brain, though he swore Derby had been possessed by another, malign spirit. (Lovecraft, “The Thing on the Doorstep”)

Daniel Upton’s account does not mention his having met Geoffrey, or the boy’s stay in Arkham. He was more deeply concerned with Derby and the ghastly course of events which led to his destruction. Geoffrey was much taken with “witch-cursed, legend-haunted Arkham”, and as a graduate of Miskatonic University, Derby arranged for him to peruse the unique collection of occult books in Miskatonic’s library. These included the original Dusseldorf edition of Unaussprechlichen Kulten, and the German translation of the Ghorl Nigral by Hermann Mulder. Geoffrey could not read German, but Derby did, and translated aloud for hours. He also wrote down certain passages in English for his youthful guest. Whether this was well-advised, or did Geoffrey any good, is dubious. However, his diet improved in Arkham and he had nightmares less often. He wrote copiously during those months, and produced the first work of his own that he considered excellent. Derby agreed enthusiastically, and helped him publish the work in the collection Towers in the Sky – mentioned in REH’s fragment “The Door to the Garden,” aka “The Door to the World.”

Towers in the Sky caused a sensation in artistic circles from New York to San Francisco, and something of a scandal in Poughkeepsie, but made little money – though if it had, the other Geoffreys might have forgiven Justin its grisly content. He remained poor. As the narrator of “The Black Stone” commented later, “… most of his recognition has come since his death.”

Justin Geoffrey now began to resent that circumstance. He envied his sole friend the ability to travel that his parents’ money gave him. He yearned to do the same. He had never given much thought to acquiring cash before, but he returned to Greenwich Village in 1916 bent on doing just that.

The resolution began a new phase in his life.