His touch was lightest in the stories by Sonia H. Greene, who was later to become his wife; he made some alterations in The Invisible Monster, he made only suggestions for the prose style of Four O’Clock.
—August Derleth, Something About Cats and Other Pieces(1949) vii
“Four O’Clock” is the third work of fiction, after “The Horror at Martin’s Beach” (1923) (published in Weird Tales as “The Invisible Monster”) and Alcestis: A Play (1985) attributed to Sonia H. Greene with some input or assistance from H. P. Lovecraft, who she would marry in 1924. Relatively little is known about the genesis of this story, as Lovecraft mentions it only a few times in his letters, except that it was apparently one of three tales that were conceived during a visit by Sonia and Lovecraft to Magnolia, Massachusetts in 1922:
Mme. G. has taken to this sort of composition—has written one & planned two more—& I’m damned if they don’t look like good stuff! The first one, “Four O’Clock”, has some images noxiously Poe-esque—I shall polish it up for use in the U.A. or something else.
—H. P. Lovecraft to Alfred Galpin, 30 Jun 1922, Letters to Alfred Galpin 120
After the repast—a most marvelous meal prepared by Mrs. G. alone since the negress disappointed her & failed to appear—a programme of literary reading & discussion took place. I read my “Doom that Came to Sarnath” & “The Tree”, Belknap read his “Eye Above the Mantel”, Mrs. Green read her “Four O’Clock” & one of the other Magnolia horror-tales not yet revised […]
—H. P. Lovecraft to Anne E. P. Gamwell, 9 Sep 1922, Letters from New York 20-21
The story did not see publication during Lovecraft’s lifetime, but in 1946 Sonia (now Sonia H. Davis) came into contact with August Derleth of Arkham House, and after some personal disagreements and correspondence, both “The Invisible Monster” and “Four O’Clock” were published in Something About Cats and Other Pieces (1949), which contained several of Lovecraft’s revision tales; it would subsequently be reprinted in The Horror in the Museum (1970) and other collections of Lovecraft’s revision and ghostwritten tales, despite the relatively slight evidence, as Joshi notes:
In a letter to Winfield Townley Scott (11 December 1948; ms JHL), Sonia H. Davis wrote that this story was written only at HPL’s suggestion. On that basis, I excluded it from the revised Horror in the Museum (1989); but in fact, much of the prose appears to be similar to HPL’s own prose, with some characteristic linguistic and even punctuational usages; so HPL probably did touch up the story somewhat. HPL never mentions the story in any extant correspondence, it was apparently not published in his lifetime. The only basis for the text is its first appearance in 1949.
—S. T. Joshi, Collected Fiction Vol. 4 (Revisions and Collaborations): A Variorum Edition 4.613
The letter mentioned is available online, where Sonia writes:
I have sent to Arkham House snap photo of HPL’s aunts, some post cards, a story revised by HP and a fictitious story I wrote about HP a few months after I met him, but at his request I did not publish it in the Rainbow because, as he told it, it was obviously a description of himself.
—Sonia H. Davis to Winfield Townley Scott, 11 Dec 1948
If the “story revised by HP” is “The Horror at Martin’s Beach”/”The Invisible Monster,” then by process of elimination the “fictitious story I wrote about HP” must be “Four O’Clock.” Which perhaps places this story in the same category of “Falco Ossifracus” (1921) by Edith Miniter, closer to affectionate parody than an effort at a weird tale, a literary tweaking of Lovecraft’s nose.
There is something deliciously pulpy about “Four O’Clock.” The tale of supernatural revenge beyond the grave to be visited at the eponymous hour has all of the four-color garish earnestness of a Tale from the Crypt-Keeper. The demons, be they real or hallucinations, have a cartoonish quality. The Poe-esque images that Lovecraft mentioned are laid on with a heavy trowel, so the fine line between pastiche and parody is blurry and indiscernible, but for readers that cackled at old horror comics, it’s hard to suppress a smile.
The major question, as with every story that claims any part of being a Lovecraft “revision,” is how much of it he wrote—or re-wrote, as is often the case. “Four O’Clock” is not easy to categorize in that regard; it has no familiar landmarks of Lovecraft country, no explicit references to the as-yet-mostly-unborn conception of Lovecraft’s Mythos. There are thematic resonances with his work, but how much of these owe themselves to Lovecraft’s imagination or Sonia H. Greene’s is impossible to say. Take for example one of the opening sentences:
The great black silences of night’s depth told me, and a monstrous cricket, chirping with a persistence too hideous to be unmeaning, made it certain. (Variorum 613)
How comparable is this to azif?
[…] azif being the word used by Arabs to designate that nocturnal sound (made by insects) suppos’d to be the howling of daemons.
—H. P. Lovecraft, “History of the Necronomicon”
Similar common images abound, the most obvious of which is perhaps the appearance of what would become one of the more common visual cues in the Mythos:
The four talons, long, thin, and straight, were now seen to be tipped by disgusting, thread-like tentacles, each with a vile intelligence of its own, which groped about incessantly, slowly at first, but gradually increasing in velocity until I was nearly driven mad by the sheer dizziness of their motion. (Variorum 615)
H. P. Lovecraft, of course, neither invented the tentacle in weird fiction nor had any monopoly on the concept; M. R. James used them to good effect in “Count Magnus” (1904), Arthur Machen in “The Novel of the Black Seal” (1895), H. G. Wells in The War of the Worlds (1897), etc. The tentacles could be coincidental, or a deliberate reference to something that came up in their correspondence which Sonia incorporated into the story deliberately to invoke Lovecraft as the unnamed protagonist of the story.
We’ll never know.
Serious literary analysis of this story could point to it as a night terror, as a psychological suspense narrative driven by the phantasmagoric imagery, a variation on the theme of the incubus attack with all attendant sublimated psychosexual implications—and there is certainly a case to be made with that. Sonia H. Greene was 39 in 1922, biological clock ticking inevitably toward doom as surely as the fated hour approaches in the story. While such deep reading of the story is possible, maybe valuable to those who enjoy that kind of exercise, the simpler enjoyment of this story might be just in the slightly ridiculous seriousness with which it pursues its premise, like a solid exploitation film.
The plot actually has gross parallels to a tangential Mythos story: “Wentworth’s Day” (1957) by August Derleth features another posthumous appointment being kept. Stylistically the stories are worlds apart, but it’s interesting that Derleth for all his efforts to ground the plot in a suitably realistic milieu doesn’t achieve anything quite like the same effect as in “Four O’Clock”—where the over-the-top visuals of the pending hour, completely surreal in any realistic setting, actually work with the kind of dream-logic that might come from reading too much Poe.
Not that Derleth borrowed anything from Greene or Lovecraft, the idea of the appointment being kept or the curse fulfilled after death is a hoary one. Both stories might be considered a bit hokey, even when they were written, and there’s a campfire tale quality to “Four O’Clock.” It feels like a story to be read not to keep the darkness at bay, but to welcome it home.