In Lovecraft’s tale “Beyond the Wall of Sleep” the entity that possesses Joe Slate leaves his body and in a semi-corporeal state travels through the cosmos to battle Algol, the Demon-Star. In an intriguing move that will become a staple of Lovecraft’s fiction, he links an actual scientific discovery to a specific instance in this tale. The entity that leaves Earth to do battle with Algol is documented in a newspaper article Lovecraft read on the discovery of an actual astronomical phenomenon.
Beyond the Wall of Sleep by Virgil Finlay
In 1901 the Scottish clergyman Thomas David Anderson discovered Nova Persei (GK Persei). At the end of “Beyond the Wall of Sleep” Lovecraft quotes an article written by Professor Garrett P. Serviss (more on him later) that documents the appearance of Nova Persei and its discovery by Anderson:
“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.”
Indeed, Nova Persei was documented to become one of the brightest objects in the night sky in 1901. Today we classify Nova Persei as a classical nova and is popularly called a Firework Nebula. It is about 1,500 light-years away from Earth and is thought to have been a binary system consisting of a compact white dwarf star and a swollen cool giant star in a tight orbit with one another. The buildup of mass transferred to the surface of the white dwarf from the giant star through an accretion disk eventually triggered a thermonuclear outburst, blasting stellar material into space without destroying the white dwarf star. This would explain the increased luminosity back in February of 1901. However, even to this day, smaller outbursts are detected. Did the luminescent being who possessed Joe Slater become a physical manifestation in our space-time as the cooling giant star or was it the white dwarf? Did it attempt, and ultimate fail, in battling Algol?
Remnants of Nova Persei (www.nasa.gov)
In the quotation provided above it states that the “new star” is not very far from Algol, which is 93 light years from Earth (The New Annotated H.P. Lovecraft by Leslie S. Klinger, 2014). According to Klinger this means that the actual occurrence of the nova would have taken not in 1901 but approximately 93 years earlier – in 1808. However, it has been established that Nova Persei is about 1,500 light years away, which actually means that Anderson’s discovery of the bright nova in 1901 was actually documenting an event that occurred in the year 401. Still we do not know if the luminescent being that possessed Joe Slate could travel through time as easily as space so its existence was not limited to strictly linear time as it is with us. Or, did the being miscalculate the distance between Algol and where it appeared as Nova Persei, which contributed to its ultimate failure in completing its mission.
As cited by Lovecraft, the article that concludes “Beyond the Wall of Sleep” was written by Professor Garrett P. Serviss. According to S. T. Joshi and David E. Schultz, Lovecraft essentially took that quoted passage directly from Serviss’s book Astronomy with the Naked Eye written in 1908 (An H.P Lovecraft Encyclopedia, published in 2001). Lovecraft was well documented to be a fan of Serviss’s fiction and non-fiction.
Garrett P. Serviss (1851-1929) was an astronomer, a popularizer of astronomy and an early science fiction writer (Klinger, 2014). Based on what I have read about Serviss, in particular by Lovecraft, he seems to have been a “Carl Sagan” of the early 20th century. That is, he made science, primarily astronomy, readily available and accessible to a general audience, which was hungry for such information at this point in history. Indeed, Serviss had a unique talent in describing and presenting scientific ideas and concepts in a clear and direct manner to a layperson with little to no scientific training. Serviss definitely had a flare in writing about scientific topics in a very literary manner.
For example, in an article called “October Skies” for the Providence Evening News, 49, No 104, 2 October 1918, Lovecraft wrote that in referring to the absence of other bright stars in the vicinity of Fomalhaut, Serviss described that star as “a distant watch-fire gleaming in the midst of a lonely prairie.” Such passages obviously stirred Lovecraft’s imagination for all things cosmic. In the same article Lovecraft himself briefly described Fomalhaut as a strangely fascinating orb (Collected Essays, Volume 3: Science H.P. Lovecraft by S.T. Joshi, 2005). Even today this statement holds true. Fomalhaut is actually a triple star system and was one of the first stars where an exoplanet was actually visible to the eye in photographic images (Science, November, 2008). However, unlike our solar system, the planet Fomalhaut b is constantly plowing through a series of debris disks that surround this star system.
Fomalhaut system with the identification of the first exoplanet to be visually confirmed (www.earthsky.org)
To conclude, Lovecraft did enjoy Serviss’s fictional and non-fictional writings. Lovecraft frequently referred to Serviss’s book Astronomy with the Naked Eye in his astronomical articles. Additionally, he stated that Serviss and another astronomer Richard A. Proctor were “…two popular astronomical writers, similar in many ways, have by means of their double gifts of scientific and literary skill accomplished marvels in dissipating superstition and propagating truth…” (Joshi, 2005). Again, to me Serviss sounds like the Carl Sagan of the early 20th century.
Artist’s conception of Fomalhaut b moving through the debris disks of the Fomalhaut star system (www.earthsky.org)
Next time we will discuss a very different type of Lovecraftian scientist – Crawford Tillinghast in the tale “From Beyond.” Thank you – Fred.