“Four O’Clock” (1949) by Sonia H. Greene

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.


Bobby Derie is the author of Weird Talers: Essays on Robert E. Howard & Others (2019) and Sex and the Cthulhu Mythos (2014).

 

Alcestis: A Play (1985) by Sonia H. Greene & H. P. Lovecraft

Alcestis. As by “Howard phillips Lovecraft and Sonia Haft Greene Lovecraft.”
Madison, WI: Strange Co., 1985. 15 pp.
Facsimile of the A.Ms. of a play (in Sonia Greene’s handwriting) that the editor, R. Alain Everts, maintains was co-written by Lovecraft and Greene. The degree of Lovecraft’s involvement (if any) is, however, undetermined.
—S. T. Joshi, H. P. Lovecraft: A Comprehensive Bibliography (2009) 195

Prior to their marriage, Sonia had suggested three ghost story plots, two of which Lovecraft expanded into stories that appeared in WEIRD TALES magazine. The third tale rests unpublished as did this play, written out in longhand by Sonia, sometime in the early 1930’s. This play was written much the same way—Sonia suggested the theme, the classical Greek subject matter delighting Lovecraft, and then Lovecraft set out to flesh out the play. His notes on Greek Mythology and on Alchestis particularly have survived, indicating that as was usual, most of the writing was his alone. despite the handwriting being that of Sonia, who likely was acting as Lovecraft’s scribe, the play bears the mark more of Lovecraft than his wife.
—R. Alain Everts, introduction to Alcestis: A Play (1985)

In the late 1960s R. Alain Everts, using a tape recorder provided by Brown University (where Lovecraft’s papers are archived), conducted a series of interviews with surviving acquaintances of H. P. Lovecraft and his circle, notably including Wilfred Blanch Talman and Sonia Davis, Lovecraft’s former wife. After the conclusion of the interviews, it became clear to Brown University that Everts had also collected materials from some of the interviewees which he did not turn over to the university. The university took out the unusual step of issuing a notice to booksellers against purchasing this material, which began a series of legal suits (see 757 F.2d 124).

In the 1970s, Everts began publishing articles based on his interviews including “Howard Phillips Lovecraft and Sex: or The Sex Life of a Gentleman,” as well as fanzines and chapbooks under the imprint “The Strange Company,” including previously unseen photographs of Lovecraft & co., letters, and Alcestis: A Play (printed in 1975 but not published until 1985). Released in an edition of only 200 copies and never reprinted, it is the rarest and most contentious of Lovecraft’s collaborations.

The play is based on Euripides’ play of the same name, which was available in several translations during Lovecraft’s lifetime, including Coleridge’s 1906 verse translation. The exact translation Howard and Sonia might have been familiar with is unknown, as no such work is listed in Lovecraft’s Library: A Cataloguebut Lovecraft specifically mentions Alcestis among Euripides’ plays in his Collected Essays (2.185). Sonia’s memoir of their marriage, The Private Life of H. P. Lovecraft (1985) likewise emphasizes their appreciation for ancient Greece:

The nomenclature of “Socrates and Xantippe” were originated by me because, as time marched on and our correspondence became more intimate, I weither saw in Howard or endowed him with a Socratic wisdom and genius, so that in a jocular vein I subscribed myself as Xantippe.
—Sonia Davis, The Private Life of H. P. Lovecraft 27

The is no mention of Alcestis: A Play in the published correspondence of H. P. Lovecraft or his former wife; then again, Lovecraft rarely mentioned his marriage or his wife in his correspondence after their separation, so this does not preclude collaboration. Even after Sonia filed for divorce, they remained on friendly terms and continued to correspond. Lovecraft is known to have visited her in March 1933, as she was recovering from an illness after returning from a trip to Europe (ibid. 22). Possibly this visit allowed for collaboration or at least inspired her to make this holograph manuscript; Sonia herself never alludes to the play in her memoir.

Absent all other evidence the only determination as to whether Lovecraft and Sonia did or did not collaborate on Alcestis: A Play is to look at the text itself.

Prologue

Scene I

Night. A cemetery beside a high-road, under a horned moon. Edge of road with low wall in the foreground. Ground covered with asphodel (the flower of the dead) and studded with tombs and stelae, rises unenvenly to wall of cyclopean masonry overgrown with cins and lichens.

“Cyclopean” is famously one of Lovecraft’s favorite adjectives, but otherwise there is no exact bit of language readers can lean on to discern who is the author; it’s a work for stylometrists. If Lovecraft was involved, the play marks a departure from his usual style: being all-dialogue, with a few descriptions of scenes and action.

Worth noting is that despite carrying her name, the character of Alcestis—who sacrificed herself so that her husband might live—never appears in the brief play. It is more accurate to say that Alcestis: A Play is a kind of prologue, setting up the events where Apollo is made the servant of Admetus and the bargain with the Fates, ending on the rather hopeful upbeat that someone will be found willing to die in the king’s place.

Addendum: Since writing this entry, I’ve discovered that a typewritten edition of the play and prologue, probably made in the 1960s, survive at the John Hay Library and can be viewed online for free.


Bobby Derie is the author of Weird Talers: Essays on Robert E. Howard & Others (2019) and Sex and the Cthulhu Mythos (2014).

“The Horror at Martin’s Beach” (1923) by Sonia H. Greene & H. P. Lovecraft

While visiting Magnolia, that beautiful, exclusive summer resort on the north shoe of Massachusetts, we often walked to Gloucester, which was a distance of about four miles. On our way we passed a beautiful esplanade. One evening while walking along this esplanade, the full moon reflecting its light in the water, a peculiar and unusual noise heard at a distance as of a loud snorting and grunting, the shimmering light forming a moon-path on the water, the round tops of the submerged piles in the water exposed a rope connecting them like a huge spider’s guy-line, gave the vivid imagination full play for an interesting weird tale. “Oh, Howard,” I exclaimed, “here you have the setting for a real strange and mysterious story.” Said he, “Go ahead, and write it.” “Oh, no, I couldn’t do it justice,” I answered. “Try it. Tell me what the scene pictures to your imagination.” And as we walked along we neared the edge of the water. Here I described my interpretation of the scene and the noises. His encouragement was so enthusiastic and sincere that when we parted for the night, i sat up and wrote the general outline which he later revised and edited. His continued enthusiasm the next day was so genuine and sincere that in appreciation I surprised and shocked him right then and there by kissing him. He was so flustered that he blushed, then he turned pale. When I chaffed him about it he said he had not been kissed since he was a very small child and that he was never kissed by any woman, not even by his mother or aunts, since he grew to manhood, and that he would probably never be kissed again. (But I fooled him.)
—Sonia H. Davis, The Private Life of H. P. Lovecraft 19

Born Sonia Haft Shafirkin to a Jewish family in the Russian Empire (modern Ukraine), by the time that Lovecraft and Sonia met she had been living in the United States some 20 years, had married and outlived her first husband (Samuel Greene), and had an adult daughter (Carol Weld) from that union. Sonia was a successful, highly-paid milliner in New York City, and had gotten involved in amateur journalism. Lovecraft met her at an amateur press convention in 1921, shortly after the death of Lovecraft’s mother, and the two began a correspondence which turned into a rather surprising courtship-in-letters. They would marry quickly and unexpected in 1924…but before that, they wrote this tale together.

There is no reason to doubt Sonia’s own account of the story’s genesis, and this makes it difficult to distinguish her prose from Lovecraft’s. The issue is exacerbated because little of Sonia’s own work has been published—her other two known fictional efforts, “Four O’Clock” and the play Alcestis both show evidence of being “touched up” by Lovecraft.  Joshi in volume 4 of the variorum edition of the collected fiction of H. P. Lovecraft notes: “One supposes that Lovecraft retained a certain amount of prose by Greene.” Her image of the moon-path in particular is a recurring motif:

It was in the twilight, when grey sea-birds hovered low near the shore and a rising moon began to make a glittering path across the waters. The scene is important to remember, for every impression counts. On the beach were several strollers and a few late bathers; stragglers from the distant cottage colony that rose modestly on a green hill to the north, or from the adjacent cliff-perched Inn whose imposing towers proclaimed its allegiance to wealth and grandeur. […]

Minutes seemed lengthened into hours, and still that human snake of swaying torsos was seen above the fast rising tide. rhythmically it undulated; slowly, horribly, with the seal of doom upon it. thicker clouds now passed over the ascending moon, and the glittering path on the waters faded nearly out. […]

There was no line of bobbing heads now. The waters were calm and deserted, and broken only by the fading ripples of what seemed to be a whirlpool far out in the path of the moonlight whence the strange cry had first come. But as I looked along that treacherous lane of silvery sheen, with fancy fevered and senses overwrought, there trickled upon my ears from some abysmal sunken waste the faint and sinister echoes of a laugh.
—Greene & Lovecraft, “The Horror at Martin’s Beach”

It is an atypical tale by Lovecraft’s standards, much like his earlier collaborations “Poetry and the Gods” (1920) with Anna Helen Crofts and “The Crawling Chaos” (1921) with Winifred Virginia Jackson. Like those stories, it is not a Mythos tale per se, although it seems likely that Lovecraft is behind the name of “Capt. Orne,” which is the name of one of the families he would later associate with Innsmouth. It has more plot than those dream-tales. The mocking laughter at the end and the strange inevitability of the victims’ doom is closer to a conte cruel than Lovecraft’s other efforts…but the real difference between this collaboration and previous efforts is its fate.

The story was written in 1922, during or shortly after the Magnolia visit (26 June – 5 July); and Lovecraft wrote on 11 Sep 1922 that at a party attended by several amateur journalism folk:

I read my “Doom that Came to Sarnath” & “The Tree”, Belknap read his “Eye Above the Mantel”, Mrs. Greene read her “Four o’Clock” & one of the other Magnolia horror-tales not yet revised […]
—Lovecraft to Anne Gamwell, 9-11 Sep 1922, Letters from New York 21

However, in March 1923 a new pulp appeared on the stands: Weird Tales. Lovecraft successfully submitted several stories to this magazine—including “The Horror at Martin’s Beach,” which appeared as “The Invisible Monster” by Sonia H. Greene in the November 1923 issue. This was, then, Lovecraft’s first commercial collaboration, and Sonia’s only professional publication during Lovecraft’s lifetime.

This is one of the stories that marked the transition from Lovecraft as an amateur to a professional writer—and perhaps it is notable that it was Sonia who partnered with him in that, as she did later in their brief marriage. She was in many ways the catalyst for bringing Lovecraft to New York, which while painful for the man from Providence also led to much personal growth.


Bobby Derie is the author of Weird Talers: Essays on Robert E. Howard & Others and Sex and the Cthulhu Mythos (2014).