‘The Transition of Juan Romero‘ is a strange fish as far as Lovecraft’s fiction goes. Like ‘Old Bugs‘ it was first published posthumously by Arkham House as Lovecraft himself disavowed the story, and refused to allow it to be published in his lifetime. Which raises a couple of questions, firstly about the morality of publishing houses ignoring the wishes of the writer, and secondly just why Lovecraft disavowed it in the first place. The former is one of those questions that come down to the lure of the greenback winning out over the writer’s wishes. The latter is a story all of its own, and insight into Lovecraft the critic with his occasionally bitchy attitude to other writers in the amateur press circles he frequented.
‘Transition‘ was written over the course of a single September day in 1919. The sixteenth of September to be exact, which we know because of the reason Lovecraft wrote it. He had got into a discussion about what in his words was a ‘dull yarn’ by a writer called Phil Mac, who was actually Prof Philip Bayaud McDonald, who’s most renown contribution to literature is the ponderously titled ‘A saga of the seas;: The story of Cyrus W. Field and the laying of the first Atlantic cable‘. The dull yarn in question was a short story set in a desert, which is now sadly lost to the world, or not as the case may be… But the lasting result of the ‘dull yarn‘ was Lovecraft decided to show what could be done with a story set in a desert which gave us ‘The Transition of Juan Romero‘. While Phil Mac’s story may well have been dull. Lovecraft’s is far from one of his best, which probably explains why something which was the result of an exercise in proving himself more capable than another writer was quickly dismissed by Lovecraft himself. He sent it to a few friends he corresponded with, no doubt to prove his point, and if he hadn’t done so, it is unlikely the story would ever have found the light of day. Most collections of Lovecraft’s work do not even bother to include it. ‘Luckily’ for me, mine does…
Bearing in mind Lovecraft’s own opinion on ‘The Transition of Juan Romero’ my hopes were not high for this one. I knew the back story to its creation, but I had never gotten around to reading it before because, to be frank if the author disavows it then why bother. But if your going to do the complete Lovecraft, then you have to do the complete Lovecraft, even the bad ones, and having forced my way through ‘Doctor Johnson‘ it would be remiss of me to avoid this one. At least ‘The Transition of Juan Romero’ is more in the tentacle pit than ramblings about 17th-century literati. So, my hopes not high, I read.
In the end, as I said, this is far from his best, but at the same time, it is far from his worst. The stories narrator tells the tale of his time as a miner in the mid-west. An Englishman who had spent time in India before coming to the States, who has a lurking past of some description, Lovecraft makes him a little on the mysterious side. Though it seems more forced than usual, as does the MacGuffin of a Hindu ring. (Lovecraft uses the archaic spelling Hindoo which these days is considered derogatory, in his defence it was much more widespread in 1919). Juan Romero himself is described as of Incan descent, again this comes across as a bit clumsy in the way it is done. While the plot involves a bottomless abyss discovered in the middle of a gold mine and a thunderous night when the narrator’s ring begins to glow. Strange chanting in the dark and coyotes howling, mysterious voices drawing the narrator and his Incan friend into the depths of the mine. This is a story full of atmosphere, because Lovecraft threw atmosphere at it in every way he could, if anything it’s trying too hard. But the biggest fault with the whole story is the sudden rush towards the ending and the oldest of old trope’s, when the narrator wakes up to find the world has reset itself in almost all respects. Except that is for poor Juan Romero himself who has died, without a mark on his body. And the narrator’s ring has disappeared.
But here’s the things, trope-ridden though it is, a grasping hack job through it feels, this is a first draft in most respects. Thrown together in a single day and then chucked in a cupboard and forgotten about. If my own first drafts turn out half this good, then I would be a very happy man, and I have the advantage of a word processor and the insert button. It needs a second draft, a few bits scrapping, others working on and perhaps a stronger ending, but then if Lovecraft wanted this in the world he would have done that no doubt. In the end, this may not be as good as you expect a Lovecraft short story to be, but it is still worth the ink on the page and equally worth a read, though I would not suggest it as anyone’s first Lovecraft unless I did not want them to read more.
I expected to be giving this a solitary tentacle and no more, but hell its better than I expected, all be it not by much and knowing that it was never meant to be out in the world, I feel Lovecraft is owed a little leeway with this forgotten child, so I’ll give it a couple, for the atmosphere is nothing else.