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Blogging With HPL: The Little Glass Bottle (1897)

It begins.

Going into a chronological reading of Lovecraft in order to examine his developing sensibilities, one can expect that hallmarks of his authorial style can be determined even from juvenilia. In fact, they can. The earliest traces of Lovecraft's distinctive voice manifest not in a taste for horror, but instead in a passion for being a smart aleck.

"The Little Glass Bottle" reads more as an outline of a story as opposed to a story itself. It starts off with a "small cat boat" and its captain, William Jones, along with John Towers (an otherwise unidentified fellow sailor) and a "party of men". Towers pulls up the titular bottle from the sea, a rum flask enclosed with a note from a John Jones (relation to William unknown but presumably unintended), claiming his ship is sinking with a treasure onboard. The bottle helpfully includes a map:

Interesting stuff! The Jones not in peril resolves to "charter a schooner this very day", and off they go for a four-week journey. The conclusion of their quest, however, is not as they expected: instead of a ship and a treasure, an iron bottle is uncovered at the spot they reach with no treasure in it whatsoever, just a note stating that "it serves you right to find nothing for your foolish act". All is not lost, however - this "anonymus" practical joker has enclosed travel expenses for the trouble. The story concludes with the first and last time our narrator makes an appearance, stating "I hardly think that they will ever [again, presumably] go to a mysterious place as directed by a mysterious bottle."

I can't help but love this story. Written in 1897, Lovecraft would have been only six or seven years old, but here he already exhibits his characteristic sense of humor which colors so much of his later writing. Often, detractors of Lovecraft's work paint him as a dour man. His staid portraiture, dark subject matter, and unusual personal habits have all lent him a popular image, when he has one at all, of an eccentric recluse, hardly someone with a sense of humor at all. That said, popular opinion is resoundingly inaccurate. It's clear that even as a small child, Lovecraft had a mischievous wit as well as a sober, exact mind. This wit can be seen throughout much of his later work, and his more comedic writing, such as "Sweet Ermengarde" or his other satirical poetry, stands well on its own merits.

This can be further illustrated through some detail about Lovecraft's early life. Born in 1890, Howard Phillips Lovecraft was noted almost immediately as a precocious and intelligent child with a passion for poetic language, a bent of contrarianism, and a taste for the unusual. His internal life in his childhood was strongly influenced by his father's illness and institutionalization in 1893, his grandmother's death in 1896, and, eventually, his father's death in 1898. Since 1893, Lovecraft's father figure became his grandfather, Whipple Phillips, a well-traveled man who encouraged a love in him of weird stories and wondrous places. Many influences on his work, which will become recurring topics of this series, started from Lovecraft's early childhood passions and fears, such as "Abdul Alhazred" being a childhood pseudonym, or the image of the night-gaunts in the Dreamlands originating in a young Lovecraft's 1896 nightmares in the wake of the death of his grandmother. However, he was not only a sufferer of nightmares - Lovecraft was a curious and enthusiastic child with a range of hobbies, from an interest in Arabian and Roman culture and the sciences to a love of historic buildings and, yes, any stories he could get his hands on.

The most obvious influence upon this story is Coleridge's "Rime of the Ancient Mariner", whose Gustave Dore-illustrated edition Lovecraft discovered upon visiting an unnamed family friend's Victorian library around the time of writing of this story. Specifically, this is the only extant story in our list of Lovecraft's work before he discovers Edgar Allan Poe and leans more explicitly into the gothic. When reading the story for a foundation to build our Unified Theory of Cosmic Horror, I note the following:

  1. "The Little Glass Bottle" paints a picture of Lovecraft's writing process at a very young age.
  2. The constant corrections and train-of-thought sentences in the story, the narrative interjection at the end to point out the lesson of the anonymous joker, the explanations in the story as they probably occurred to Lovecraft when he wrote them, all point to this being an intact first and final draft written out more or less straight from Lovecraft's mind as he thought of it. Taken into account with other early works, we can use this story as a way to trace how Lovecraft thought about stories and some of what he enjoyed in a story. Here, were I to extrapolate, it seems like Lovecraft read "The Ancient Mariner" as well as adventure stories in general, was familiar with the tropes of the sea-stories, including a treasure in a bottle, and wrote "The Little Glass Bottle" as a light-hearted send-up. Even aside from the remarkable genre literacy Lovecraft displays for a small child, it shows how although Lovecraft enjoyed adventure stories of these types, he was also able to make gentle fun of them when it suited him (and provide for travel expenses in the bargain).

  3. Building off the last point, it is useful to analyze this work and future work in light of what Lovecraft felt was missing from other stories and genres.
  4. Although literary criticism is eternal, what we would now consider awareness of genre or trope is relatively rare the further back one looks in the history of lit-crit in general. Genre movies used to have to explain tropes like time-travel or body-switching much more than would be expected of a story in the modern day, when social media, prestige genre television, and memes made 'getting the reference' or understanding a trope elementary to much public discourse. Therefore, it is unusual, I think, that in 1897 a young child would make this sort of sharp joke in an extended vignette. Lovecraft had a keen mind for story, even as a child. He also had apparently been analyzing stories in terms of what did not make sense about their tropes and what could be subverted for greater effect at least since the age of six. Creator of a new genre, indeed!

  5. The most interesting thing this story has in common with Lovecraft's later, classic works is a search for the unknown leading to punishment.
  6. My saying so is likely a reach, but I can't help but notice the parallels between sailors and explorers in remote coordinates in some of Lovecraft's later classics and these avaricious sailors being punished for their search for the unknown. I say 'search for the unknown' as opposed to 'greed' or 'impracticality', because of our dear narrator's telling final line, the only time we hear our narrator's voice in the entire story: "...I hardly think that they will ever go to a mysterious place as directed by a mysterious bottle." Mysterious! Repeated twice to boot! Clearly, I would argue, even at the age of six, the lesson the young Lovecraft wished to impart was not an injunction against avarice or foolishness, but against curiosity.

That's all I have for now! Next up on our reading schedule is "The Secret Cave or John Lees Adventure", where we can check out the changes in Lovecraft's juvenile writing into 1898 and beyond. Happy reading!

Keep it weird,