An Excerpt from Gabriel Blackwell’s “The Natural Dissolution of Fleeting-Improvised-Men: The Last Letter of H.P. Lovecraft”


When we interviewed Gabriel Blackwell earlier this year, he noted that his next novel would be inspired by H.P. Lovecraft. Blackwell went on to make the case for why he was intrigued by Lovecraft: “He was before his time not only in his fiction: he interacted with the world in a very virtual way, spending much of his time in his room writing letters to people he would never meet. That seemed applicable. And, of course, I am a fan of his stories. He’s much more Borgesian than he’s usually recognized as being.” We’re happy to have an excerpt of that novel, The Natural Dissolution of Fleeting-Improvised-Men, here for you today.

from The Natural Dissolution of Fleeting-Improvised-Men

A couple of months ago, I found myself living in Providence. I had arrived there with one goal in mind: to find Jessica, the woman I had been living with for three and a half years, and who had disappeared two months before. She had moved to Portland from Boston around the time that I had moved there from New Orleans, and during the course of our relationship, I had learned that her family was from Rhode Island, from a tiny carbuncle on the larger node of Providence called Cranston. I was so wretched in the immediate wake of her disappearance that I had succumbed to a deep depression, and it had taken me much too long to begin looking for her. Which is to say that I looked for her not at all for three weeks, until there was no trace of her in Portland. When this fragile stasis broke, I went to the places that we had gone to early in our relationship, the only places we had ever really gone, as, after moving in together, we had rarely gone out, and had no friends in common. It was January, and Portland’s winter had finally settled in. Rain drove everyone indoors; there were lighted windows along every street, at any hour, day or night, but, because of the city’s cloud cover and its Dark Skies initiative (intended to make the stars visible even in the city, it mostly succeeded in making the city seem as dead as those distant stars), the gloom outside was almost unbroken. I suppose I naïvely expected to find her in one or another of these windows—a ghost of my memory, sitting across a table from the ghost of myself at one of the many restaurants along Mississippi or Hawthorne that we had once visited—but by that time I think that I would not have believed it even if it had come to pass. When these desultory searches had turned up nothing, I gave them up, too, and traveled cross-country to Cranston, to Providence, Rhode Island, in search of her family, in search of her. I had very little money, and I had no idea of what I would do while there, but reason no longer held sway over my actions; anything that took me out of myself seemed likely to produce better results.

But just as my internet searches and directory queries had turned up nothing in Portland, repeating those same searches and queries in Providence proved unsuccessful. I was much closer to Cranston, but my location had nothing to tell me. Worse, I had spent the last of my money in getting there and had to take a room in the men’s shelter nearest the harbor, a place called the Gilman House. The shelter smelled like a cannery that had served double-duty as a furrier’s. It was a squat cinder-block construction that might once have been a public meeting-place or a warehouse; now, the only remains of that history were the stains of former industry on the concrete flooring of the common area. It was a miserable place, a place of misery, but it was winter and I could not go without a roof. I was fortunate only in that I was restive, unable to sleep, and after the first night, I seldom even lay down. My neighbors in the dorm there were haunted men, uneasy, itching Rorschach blots with appetites that would probably never be fulfilled and holes at their centers that they stuffed with cheap drugs and even cheaper alcohol. If I had not been kept awake by remorse, my fear of these men would have done the job. I turned thirty-three there.

In order to cling to even that tenuous foothold at the Gilman House, I had had to advertise my destitution at the local daylabor site. At that time of year there was understandably little work, and the small crowd was vicious, mostly men brought in long before dawn in the beds of pickup trucks, hoping only to leave in another pickup bed by the time that the sun broke over East Providence. Their infighting was subtle but savage, most of it conducted in languages I could not understand. Some men were picked out of the crowd because the rest of us parted to let them move forward, but it was never clear to me on what basis workers were selected. It was an unspoken rule that no one approached the trucks, that the foremen beckoned and, by some invisible system, the right man stepped up to the right window and was taken from us. Those left shuffled around the site until one or one-thirty and then went their separate ways. On the second day, just after noon, a man came by in an unmarked truck, one of those with the extra sets of wheels—not quite a semi-, but with an outsized, black steel-reinforced bed and a huge winch—and chose me from among a small group I had not been conscious of joining. I was employed.

This man, Paul, was a contractor to the hospital, hired to assist in the destruction of decades of documents pertaining to patients long dead. The important records had been digitized and all that was left was to shred and pulp the remainder. To save on transportation costs, the shredding had been contracted to Paul and was being done on-site (the resultant “confetti” was compressed into squarish bales of pulp almost denser than the trees it had started out as; the bales I dealt with were so heavy they would have pulverized every bone in my foot if they had fallen off the tines of the power-lift—just one of the many hazards that had sent Paul to the daylabor site rather than to a temporary agency). My job was simple, mindless, and—bizarrely—unsupervised. I was let into the vast basement archives with an encyclopedia-sized dot-matrix printout of the records to be destroyed, and left alone to feed them into the industrial shredder. I suppose that, given the hospital’s contention that all of the important documents had been digitized already, I could not have done any real harm, but I often wondered what would happen if I pulped the wrong file: would that person wink out of existence just a bit, their birth, perhaps also their death, now unrecorded? The shredder itself was surprisingly quiet—the rotor and blades were so sharp, cut the paper so cleanly and quickly, I was told, that the man I was replacing had hardly felt them, hadn’t even made a sound until after.

Paul spent his days elsewhere. I never learned what his function was. Neither he nor anyone from the hospital bothered to interrupt my isolation. I thus had access, though only through an ancient terminal with an archaic operating system that took me three days to learn how to navigate, to the hospital’s records up to 2003, when administrators had finally switched over to the new system. I looked for every variation on Jessica’s family name I could think of, and, when some gave results, looked through their family trees as well. I had stumbled into a solution of a sort. Or so I thought.

I had, at least, a growing list of addresses I could try, copied out onto the back of one of those sprocketed printouts. Surely, one or another would lead somewhere. But the records were, all of them, over twenty years old, and had become dead ends during that span if they hadn’t always been so. When my day in the basement had ended and the sun I had arrived too early to see rise had set, I would make my way to empty lots, houses carved up into impossible warrens of tiny apartments, and dilapidated and uninhabitable colonials. I turned up nothing, again and again. My life had become uninhabitable, too, a shanty. I had no energy to demolish it, and so it stood, ill-used and slanting, waiting to collapse.

To make matters worse, a cyst had developed on my trip from Portland to Providence, forming below the cheek of my left buttock where it met the thigh, and it had become so irritated I could not sit without great pain: either the pain of putting pressure on the inflamed cyst, or else the pain of sitting on my right hip only, the tickling of flames shooting up my spine from such an awkward pose held too long. Work was not a problem in this regard, as the shredder’s opening was raised and had to be accessed via a step-ladder, so I had no need to sit during my work day, except at the terminal. But once that day was done, I was forced into sitting on the bus or in my bunk. I began walking to the Gilman House from the hospital, a not-inconsiderable distance, crossing the river and passing through the better part of downtown. Once arrived, I paced in the common room until lights-out. I couldn’t afford to get the cyst levaged, and so there I was, making five, sometimes six visits to the hospital every week and never once having my condition looked at. A side effect of my discomfort was that my walks back to the dorm became walks that did not have a fixed destination. I gradually ceased to return to the shelter at all, except briefly in the pre-dawn to wrestle another shirt or a pair of pants to cleanness in the washroom there, or else, even more rarely, in the early evening, to clean myself. I spent whole nights wandering the streets of Providence, occasionally finding myself outside one or another of the addresses on my list but cognizant even in that state that I could not have approached their doors had there been doors there to approach—not at those hours, not in the condition I was in. Mostly, I shuffled around the waterfront in widening spirals. The darkness and my preoccupations swallowed up most of my surroundings, even up to the street signs, so that, though I spent a month in Providence mostly on foot, I could not now draw you a map or even pick out where I had been. I might as well have been in any city at all.

And then, an unexpected discovery: at the top of the second column on that day’s printout, my own name in blocky Terminal. A cousin? Some distant relative? I didn’t bother with the first column of names, I went directly to that file. This Gabriel Blackwell had been admitted to the hospital on March 10, 1937 for an emergency appendectomy. There were no other records—it seemed likely that the man wasn’t a resident of Providence after all; nowhere in the file could I find an address—he had been transported to the hospital from Dexter Asylum, the city’s refuge for “Incurables,” the mentally ill and the otherwise hopeless. There was a letter following his intake forms, fifty-eight octavo pages of tight, densely packed script, signed at the end “Howard Philips Lovecraft.” I was shocked out of my anhedonic state. H. P. Lovecraft! This was astonishing. But odd—why would such a letter be in a hospital file? Why not in a museum, or some private collection somewhere? I could think of no likely answer. As the file showed, it had been written two days after Blackwell had died, from complications that followed the surgery. So how had it come to be delivered, then, and why? I showed the letter to Paul, who gave me a blank look I could not interpret (I don’t know if he knew my name), and, when I explained who Lovecraft was, turned off the shredder and told me that the Hay Library at Brown had “a bunch of that stuff,” old letters and books. He didn’t seem terribly interested in the Library’s holdings, Lovecraft or otherwise, but he was from the area and had visited the Library’s collection as part of an elementary school field-trip.

Lovecraft’s signature certainly seemed legitimate. And the age of the thing weighed against forgery—why would anyone have forged such a letter in 1937, when its supposed signatory (not to mention its addressee) had died a pauper’s death unremarked by all but the most devoted of his fans? Even stranger, why would anyone have sent that forgery to a Providence hospital, to be filed away and forgotten? Why not make something of it, if that had been the intention? But the things I read in the letter were fantastic, elements out of Lovecraft’s fiction, which I began reading, actually reading, in the evenings after work, before the Library closed to the public. Needless to say, I had liberated the letter from the hospital, and began to think of what I ought to do with it. The most obvious choice would have been to deposit it where it had brought me, in the Hay Library itself, but I worried that doing so might bring me unwanted attention. I was, after all, the author of a book commonly considered a hoax. Something else stayed my hand—perhaps it was the uncanniness of my own name at the letter’s head—and I began to carry it about in the same backpack that held my laptop and the letter from Jessica, the bag that I kept with me at all times. Instead of giving the letter over into someone else’s hands, I treated it as though it had been meant for me all along. I began transcribing it, in the library and even at work.

The letter had some strange effect on me. My sense of loss was temporarily replaced by one of fascination, my depression alleviated by a tense sort of distraction. It was not an easy text to decipher—I would spend hours trying to figure out what a word or phrase was only to find that, when I had finally fixed it in my mind and was beginning to type it out into the file on my laptop, I could not find those particular words or phrases in the thick block of text before me to check what I had typed against them. That is, coming to the end of the particular sentence I was typing, I would look back over its analogue in the letter and would be unable to find even a third of what I had typed. My eyes moved up and down the page, never lighting upon what I had been so certain of only moments before. This was undoubtedly made worse by the thicket of Lovecraft’s characters, by their lack of line breaks and paragraph breaks and even space between words, but it was also a quality of the prose. The events I was transcribing had not only not happened in life but not happened in the letter, either. It thus took me much longer than I would have anticipated to finish this transcription. I was still working on it when, horribly, my backpack was stolen from me and my letters and my laptop disappeared forever.

I had been out walking very late at night—perhaps two or two-thirty in the morning—when I felt a tug at my shoulder that then became a shove on the opposite shoulder. As I stumbled forward, something sharp dug in through the strap of my backpack, slicing open my shirt and my shoulder-blade, and the backpack was, in that moment, not the first thing I thought of. I crouched where I had stumbled forward, rolling into as small a space as I could manage, close to the wall of the building I had been passing, a dusty glass-fronted restaurant or bar that seemed to have been long out of business. My attacker had already left the scene when I looked up. I was bleeding a bit, but not as badly as I had feared, and my shoulder throbbed and the cold air stung, but my jacket and the strap itself had taken most of the blade or whatever it was so that I did not think I would need stitches. It was at that moment that I realized what had been taken from me, and that moment when I experienced real panic.

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