By S.T. Joshi
Why study H. P. Lovecraft? In the minds of some critics and scholars this question still evidently requires an answer, and will perhaps always require an answer so long as standard criticism maintains its inexplicable prejudice against the tale of horror, fantasy, and the supernatural. In the space I have I cannot hope to present a general defense of the weird tale; but I can at least suggest that Edmund Wilson's condemnation of Lovecraft's work as "bad taste and bad art" ("Tales of the Marvellous and the Ridiculous" ) may, at the very least, have been a little myopic. Wilson wrote his offhand review forty-five years ago, and the vicissitudes of Lovecraft's recognition his adulation in the science fiction and fantasy fan magazines of the forties; the stony silence of the fifties; Colin Wilson's vicious attack of Lovecraft as a neurotic in the sixties; and the systematic clearing away of misconceptions about the man and his work by his many supporters in the seventies and eighties would make an interesting study in itself.
The ancillary question "Why read H. P. Lovecraft?" seems to have been definitively answered, if the millions of hardcover and paperback copies of his work in this country and the translations of his stories into fifteen or more languages around the world are any testimony. Lovecraft has always had a divided readership on the one hand youthful enthusiasts of fantasy, on the other hand a small band of writers and critics (from T. O. Mabbott to Jorge Luis Borges) who can see beyond the tentacled monsters that adorn the covers of his books to the philosophical and literary substance of the work itself. It is perhaps this first group of readers that makes the critical establishment so dubious: how can a writer so popular be of literary worth? This is a very real inquiry, not an attenuated relic of literary aristocracy: although we are flooded today with volumes of supposed scholarship on Stephen King, there is still little reason to believe that his work merits much attention.
What we must do, then, is to see what there is about Lovecraft that is worth studying, and why, one hundred years after his birth, he commands so large a popular and a scholarly following. Here are some hints: (1) Lovecraft's life, although outwardly uneventful, is of consuming interest thanks to the existence of tens of thousands of his letters, he is one of the most self-documented individuals in human history; (2) his life, work, and thought form a philosophical and aesthetic unity found in few other writers; and (3) the whole of his work fiction, essays, poetry, letters is worth study.
Howard Phillips Lovecraft was born on 20 August 1890 in his native home at 454 (then 194) Angell Street in Providence, Rhode Island. He came from distinguished ancestry: his maternal line, the Phillipses, could trace its lineage almost to the Mayflower, and when Lovecraft later visited some erstwhile ancestral estates in western Rhode Island the name of Phillips was remembered with fondness and respect (see SL 2.81f.); his paternal line was of English origin, and Lovecraft could trace the Lovecraft or Lovecroft name well into the fifteenth century. At the time of his birth Lovecraft's family was quite well-to-do, most of the wealth derived from the extensive business interests of Lovecraft's maternal grandfather, Whipple Van Buren Phillips. This prosperity, however, was not to last. The death of Whipple Phillips in 1904 had two calamitous effects: it robbed Lovecraft of one of his major early influences (for with the death of Lovecraft's father in 1898 of paresis the raising of the lad had been entrusted to his mother, his two aunts, and especially his grandfather); moreover, because of the mismanagement of affairs by Phillips's business associates, Phillips's fortune was squandered and the Lovecrafts were forced to move out of their palatial mansion. Lovecraft never recovered from the loss of his birthplace: in the short run it drove him almost to suicide, as he took long bicycle rides and gazed wistfully at the watery depths of the Barrington River; in the long run it led to a sense of loss and displacement that his early readings only augmented.
Those readings done at random in the capacious family library can be classified into three broad areas: antiquarianism; fantasy and horror; and science. The first may at this point have been most important. Lovecraft gravitated to the eighteenth century, developing a curious affinity for books with the "long s." He read all the standard poets and prose writers (especially the essayists; he was less keen on the early novelists), and through the great translations of the Greek and Latin classics of that age (Garth's Ovid, Pope's Iliad and Odyssey) he arrived at the ancients themselves. He learned Latin well enough to translate the first eighty-eight lines of Ovid's Metamorphoses into heroic couplets at about the age of ten (1); by the age of twelve he was writing poems heavily saturated in the classicism of Virgil, Horace, Ovid, and Juvenal. In the fantasy line Lovecraft early imbibed both Grimm's Fairy Tales and the Arabian Nights (the latter impelled him to adopt a playful Mohammedanism until it gave way to the groves of Hellas); at age eight he discovered Poe, and this gave his writing the greatest impetus it ever received. But about this time Lovecraft also discovered the world of science first chemistry, then astronomy. Lovecraft later believed that Hellenism and astronomy were the two central influences of his early years, the latter especially because it led directly to his "cosmic" philosophy wherein mankind and the world are but a flyspeck amidst the vortices of infinite space. Lovecraft long maintained this duality of science and pure literature in his own writing: on the one hand we have his many juvenile treatises on chemistry and astronomy, as well as his amateur periodicals The Scientific Gazette (1899-1909) and The Rhode Island Journal of Astronomy (1903-09); on the other hand his youthful stories, poems, and translations. He would harmonize the diverse strains only in his later "scientific" fiction, especially At the Mountains of Madness and "The Shadow out of Time."
The prodigious fecundity of Lovecraft's early writing indicates not only precocity but considerable leisure; indeed, Lovecraft's formal schooling first at Slater Avenue School, then at Hope Street High School was always sporadic, and did not in the end lead to a diploma. Poor health was the cause of his frequent absences, but the nature of his malady is not now easy to discern. Lovecraft claimed to have suffered frequent nervous breakdowns in youth, including a serious one in 1908 which led to his withdrawal not only from high school but also from the world at large. He destroyed much of his early writing, and for the next five years retreated into a hermitry from which little could stir him: we know that on his twenty-first birthday in 1911 he rode the trolleys all day, but aside from this the period is largely blank.
Lovecraft was freed from this sequestration in a very curious way. Having fallen into the habit of reading the popular magazines of the day, especially some of the early Munsey pulps (The Argosy, The All-Story, etc.), Lovecraft became so irked at the contributions of a romance writer, Fred Jackson, that he wrote a verse epistle to the editor in protest. No doubt Lovecraft thought nothing of resurrecting the eighteenth-century verse satire in 1913, but the thing must have amused the editor, for he printed it. There followed a series of rebuttals back and forth between Lovecraft and those who defended Jackson, and this battle was observed by Edward F. Daas of the United Amateur Press Association (UAPA); he urged the leading participants of the fray to join the order, and Lovecraft promptly did so.
The UAPA (and its rival, the National Amateur Press Association, which Lovecraft later joined) was a group of amateur writers who wrote and published their own journals some of them very crude, others quite distinguished. Lovecraft joined the organization in early 1914, and for the next decade produced an astonishing amount of amateur writing: he edited thirteen issues of his own paper, The Conservative; he contributed essays and poems to scores of other journals; he edited the official organ of the UAPA, The United Amateur, and served as President and as Chairman of the Department of Public Criticism. It was as if a lifeline had been extended to a drowning man: Lovecraft, of frail health, ashamed of his inability to attend Brown University and gain a college degree, buried in a world of his own making that was increasingly remote from reality, was finally rescued by a band of amateur writers with aspirations like his own so he fancied but with viewpoints often differing significantly from his. Lovecraft's formidable intellect and literary skill raised him quickly to prominence in the field (a prominence he still holds as one of the pillars of the amateur movement), but Lovecraft knew that he had received as much from amateurdom as he gave it:
In 1914, when the kindly hand of amateurdom was first extended to me, I was as close to the state of vegetation as any animal well can be. . . . With the advent of the United I obtained a renewed will to live; a renewed sense of existence as other than a superfluous weight; and found a sphere in which I could feel that my efforts were not wholly futile. For the first time I could imagine that my clumsy gropings at art were a little more than faint cries lost in the unlistening void. (2)
It is in the amateur world that Lovecraft recommenced the writing of fiction. His associates notably W. Paul Cook praised the juvenile tales that he allowed to be printed "The Beast in the Cave" (1905), "The Alchemist" (1908) and urged him to write more. Lovecraft did so, producing "The Tomb" and "Dagon" in quick succession in the summer of 1917; from then on he maintained a steady if sparse flow of fiction until his death. But until at least 1922 Lovecraft regarded himself more as a poet and essayist than as a fiction writer in sheer volume his collected verse and nonfiction dwarf his fiction threefold.
Even the professional sale of his work was generated through the amateur world. First, some of his poems were reprinted from amateur journals by the professional National Magazine of Boston; then, in 1921, Lovecraft received an offer to write a series of six "Grewsome Tales" for a professional magazine, Home Brew, launched by an amateur colleague, George Julius Houtain. Lovecraft was to have been paid $5 for each segment of the serial which we now know as "Herbert West Reanimator," universally acknowledged as Lovecraft's poorest work but whether he ever was is open to question. The next year he wrote another serial for Home Brew (which was actually largely a humor magazine, and which Lovecraft aptly termed a "vile rag" [SL 4.170]), the much better tale "The Lurking Fear." In 1923 the founding of Weird Tales seemed to promise a ready market for his work, but Lovecraft was initially reluctant to submit his stories there; then when he did so (remarking in his cover letter that some of the tales had been rejected by Black Mask) and when the tales were accepted, he felt it too bothersome to retype the stories in double-spacing. But he finally made the effort, and from then on his work began to appear there regularly. Lovecraft never wrote (or, rather, sold) enough fiction to be a professional writer; instead, his income was provided by an ever-dwindling family inheritance and by the dreary task of literary revision and ghost-writing. This work ran the gamut from textbooks to poetry to novels to articles; but on occasion Lovecraft attracted revision clients who wished to write horror tales, and his "revisions" of the works of such tyros as Hazel Heald, Zealia Bishop, Adolphe de Castro, and others are often tantamount to original composition.
In 1921, however, Lovecraft's domestic life was powerfully affected by the death of his mother after a long illness. Mrs. Lovecraft, her frail constitution destroyed by the death of her husband under peculiar circumstances (it is likely that he, a traveling salesman, died from some form of syphilis, although the evidence now seems conclusive that Lovecraft himself was not congenitally syphilitic) and pathologically overprotective of her only child, died in a sanitarium; the immediate cause of death, however, was a badly managed gall bladder operation. Lovecraft, stunned by the blow, felt himself again on the brink of suicide, but the sentiment did not last long: a month after his mother's death he attended an amateur journalism convention in Boston, where he met the woman who was to become his wife. Sonia Haft Greene was a Russian Jew seven years older than Lovecraft, but he was captivated by her devotion to amateur letters and what on the surface appeared to be a similar view of the world. Their courtship cut short a budding romance (of which we know very little) between Lovecraft and the amateur poet Winifred Virginia Jackson, but it took three years for Lovecraft and Sonia to decide on marriage. When they did so Lovecraft told his aunts by letter after the ceremony had taken place at St. Paul's Cathedral in New York; perhaps he feared that Sonia's racial heritage, and the fact that she ran a successful millinery shop on Fifth Avenue, would not have met with the approval of two elderly ladies of old New England stock.
Was Lovecraft's marriage doomed to failure? It is easy to say such a thing after the fact, but there is no reason to believe it. Who knows what might have happened had a series of disasters not hit the couple almost immediately upon their marriage? the collapse of Sonia's shop; the inability of Lovecraft to find a job in New York; Sonia's ill health, which forced her to leave the household and seek recuperation in various rest homes; and, perhaps most important, Lovecraft's growing horror of New York its oppressive size, the hordes of "aliens" at every corner, its emphasis on speed, money, and commercialism. The many friends Lovecraft had in the city Samuel Loveman, Rheinhart Kleiner, Arthur Leeds, and especially the young poet and fantaisiste Frank Belknap Long, Jr. were not enough to ward off depression and even incipient madness. On 1 January 1925, after only ten months of cohabitation with Sonia, Lovecraft moved into a single room in a squalid area of Brooklyn, as his wife left to seek employment in the Midwest; she thereafter returned only intermittently to New York.
Lovecraft's fiction turned from the nostalgic "The Shunned House" (1924), set in Providence to the bitter: "He" and "The Horror at Red Hook" (1925) laid bare his feelings about New York, and the ending of the former tale encapsulates his yearning to return to the tranquil and familiar world of New England. But that return only took place in April 1926, after a complicated series of arrangements worked out by Lovecraft, his wife, Frank Long, and his aunts: Lovecraft returned ecstatically to Providence, settling at 10 Barnes Street north of Brown University. Where did Sonia fit into these plans? No one seemed to know, least of all Lovecraft: he continued to profess his love for her, but refused to return to New York; and when she proposed to set up shop in Providence, there was equal resistance, this time from Lovecraft's aunts. Sonia tells it laconically: "At the time the aunts gently but firmly informed me that neither they nor Howard could afford to have Howard's wife work for a living in Providence. That was that. I now knew where we all stood. Pride preferred to suffer in silence; both theirs and mine." (3) The family's social standing (in spite of their poverty) was too precious to be tainted by a tradeswoman wife; the marriage was essentially over, and a divorce in 1929 was inevitable.
Lovecraft settled down to the reposeful existence he had known before Sonia and New York; but it was not the same Lovecraft who saw only the eighteenth century or classical antiquity and ignored the modern world; nor was it a Lovecraft who buried himself away as in the 1908-13 period. Instead, after a flurry of literary activity such as he never experienced before or after in six months he wrote "The Call of Cthulhu," "The Silver Key," The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath, The Case of Charles Dexter Ward, "The Colour out of Space," and several other works, as well as completing the treatise Supernatural Horror in Literature begun in late 1925 in New York he became, in the last ten years of his life, the man who most comes to mind when we hear the name Lovecraft: the author of tales of cosmic horror; the center of a vast and ever-increasing web of epistolary ties with literary figures in the field (August Derleth, Donald Wandrei, Vincent Starrett, Clark Ashton Smith, Robert E. Howard, E. Hoffmann Price, Henry S. Whitehead, and others); the seeker of antiquarian sites all along the eastern part of the continent Quebec, New England, Philadelphia, Washington, D.C., Richmond, Charleston, St. Augustine, New Orleans, Key West; the elder statesman of fantasy who, in the thirties, served as the fountainhead and mentor for many young fans and writers (Robert Bloch, J. Vernon Shea, R. H. Barlow, Charles D. Hornig, Julius Schwartz, Donald A. Wollheim, Duane W. Rimel, Fritz Leiber, Henry Kuttner, James Blish, and many others).
By 1930 Lovecraft had published many tales in Weird Tales and "The Colour out of Space" in Hugo Gernsback's Amazing Stories; but when would a book bearing his name appear? There had been a half-dozen pamphlets issued by amateur publishers, and W. Paul Cook's stillborn edition of The Shunned House (sheets printed in 1928) held Lovecraft in anticipation to his death. In the late 1920s Farnsworth Wright of Weird Tales had toyed with the idea of a collection of Lovecraft's tales (to be called prophetically enough The Outsider and Other Stories), but the plan had come to nothing. Then, in 1931, G. P. Putnam's Sons asked to look at some of Lovecraft's stories; their eventual rejection, coinciding with the rejection by Wright of At the Mountains of Madness (regarded by Lovecraft as his most ambitious work), gave Lovecraft a severe setback. Always sensitive to criticism, he later admitted that this double rejection "did more than anything else to end my effective fictional career" (SL 5.224). Later efforts by Vanguard, Knopf, Loring & Mussey, and William Morrow to issue a collection of tales or a novel also came to nothing, and Lovecraft's later work is increasingly tinged with self-doubt: "The Shadow over Innsmouth" (1931) went through two, perhaps three drafts; "The Dreams in the Witch House" (1932), one of his poorest later efforts, was written frenetically in pencil, as was "The Thing on the Doorstep" (1933); "The Shadow out of Time" (1934-35) went through at least two drafts. In 1936 Lovecraft made what to us seems the astonishing assertion that "I'm farther from doing what I want to do than I was 20 years ago" (SL 5.224). Lovecraft may have gained some pleasure at finally moving into a historic house at 66 College Street in 1933 (the house dates to ca. 1825) and at his increasing glorification by the early fantasy fandom movement; but one wonders whether the sense of frustration pervading his later work had anything to do with his failure to seek medical help for the cancer of the intestine that ultimately killed him, and whose symptoms had begun to be evident at least two years before his death. Or did he fear a repetition of the bungled operation that had robbed him of his mother? In any case, when Lovecraft entered Jane Brown Memorial Hospital on 10 March 1937, all that could be done was to give him morphine to ease the pain. He died five days later and was buried in the Phillips family plot in Swan Point Cemetery. Only recently has a separate marker been erected on his grave, the funds contributed by many of his posthumous admirers; the stone reads: "I am Providence."
What did Lovecraft mean when he wrote:
I should describe mine own nature as tripartite, my interests consisting of three parallel and dissociated groups (a) Love of the strange and the fantastic. (b) Love of the abstract truth and of scientific logick. (c) Love of the ancient and the permanent. Sundry combinations of these strains will probably account for all my odd tastes and eccentricities. (SL 1.110)
Whether these are really to be "dissociated," and whether they make up the totality of Lovecraft's thought and personality (he wrote this in 1920), is to be wondered. Later he confessed, acutely, that his very love of the past fostered the principal strain in his aesthetic of the weird the defeat or confounding of time. In any case, the traditional image of Lovecraft the one we think of when we see Virgil Finlay's exquisite portrait of him as a periwigged gentleman as the eighteenth-century fossil completely ignorant of and hostile to the twentieth century has, since the publication of his letters, been shown conclusively to be false. Anyone who reads of Lovecraft's careful dissection of the political scene prior to the 1936 election he was a pronounced New Dealer will know that he was no "stranger in this century," as the "Outsider" says of himself. Even his fiction, if read carefully, can be seen to be more than the escapist dreams of a doting antiquarian: superficially we have things like the discovery of Pluto cited in "The Whisperer in Darkness" (1930) or the then still controversial continental drift theory in At the Mountains of Madness (1931); more profoundly we have Einstein, Planck, and Heisenberg recurring in significant fashion in the later fiction, or the transparent metaphors for humanity's future aesthetic, political, and economic development in the alien civilizations in "The Mound" (1929-30), At the Mountains of Madness, and "The Shadow out of Time."
This does not mean that Lovecraft abandoned his love of the past; it is simply that he justified it more rationally. Lovecraft's prose style, for example, always bore traces of his early absorption of the Augustans; but in later years he could defend eighteenth-century prose (quite rightly) precisely because it was more natural and direct than either the floridity of Carlyle or the "machine-gun fire" of Hemingway:
I refuse to be taken in by the goddam bunk of this aera just as totally as I refused to fall for the pompous, polite bull of Victorianism and one of the chief fallacies of the present is that smoothness, even when involving no sacrifice of directness, is a defect. The best prose is vigorous, direct, unadorn'd, and closely related (as is the best verse) to the language of actual discourse; but it has its natural rhythms and smoothness just as good oral speech has. There has never been any prose as good as that of the early eighteenth century, and anyone who thinks he can improve upon Swift, Steele, and Addison is a blockhead. (SL 4.32-33)
What we see, therefore, in the course of Lovecraft's work as well as his life and thought is a gradual coming to terms with the modern world, but at the same time a belief that that world offered fewer aesthetic riches than certain prior ages of Western civilization. From a naive antiquarian Lovecraft evolved into an informed antiquarian.
His "love of the abstract truth and of scientific logick" compelled him to pursue a wide range of academic interests -literature, philosophy, chemistry, astronomy, astrophysics, anthropology, psychology, art and architecture and, more important, to fashion a coherent philosophy that served as the fountainhead for his entire literary work. This is hardly the place for a full exposition of that philosophy; but some aspects of its relation to his literary work can be sketched here.
Lovecraft's early studies in the natural sciences, as well as his absorption of the atomism of Democritus, Epicurus, and Lucretius, led to his espousal of mechanistic materialism. The trump card that ensured the truth of this stance, Lovecraft felt, was the landmark work of nineteenth-century science: the nebular hypothesis of Laplace sufficiently explained the evolution of the universe; the Darwin theory abolished the myth of the "soul" and the argument from design; and perhaps most important for the atheist Lovecraft the work of anthropologists like E. B. Tylor and J. G. Frazer accounted with overwhelming completeness for the natural origin of mankind's belief in the supernatural. For the rest of his life Lovecraft tirelessly worked to accommodate the potentially disturbing findings of twentieth-century science with nineteenth-century positivism. Einstein showed the fundamental equivalence of matter and energy: well, one could still be more or less of a materialist (as, indeed, Lovecraft's most revered modern thinkers, Bertrand Russell and George Santayana, were), even though the word "materialist" would now be used only in a historical sense:
The truth is, that the discovery of matter's identity with energy and of its consequent lack of vital intrinsic difference from empty space is an absolute coup de grace to the primitive and irresponsible myth of "spirit". For matter, it appears, really is exactly what "spirit" was always supposed to be. Thus it is proved that wandering energy always has a detectable form that if it doesn't take the form of waves or electron-streams, it becomes matter itself; and that the absence of any other detectable energy-form indicates not the presence of spirit, but the absence of anything whatever. (SL 2.266-67)
Then Planck comes along with the quantum theory; this proves to be a little more troublesome, but ultimately Lovecraft takes it in stride:
What most physicists take the quantum theory, at present, to mean, is not that any cosmic uncertainty exists as to which of several courses a given reaction will take; but that in certain instances no conceivable channel of information can ever tell human beings which course will be taken, or by what exact course a certain observed result came about. (SL 3.228)
This is in fact false, even though it was endorsed by Einstein ("God does not play dice with the cosmos") and other leading thinkers of the day. As for Heisenberg, he is actually mentioned in "The Dreams in the Witch House," but I do not know how well Lovecraft really came to terms with indeterminacy. The point is, however, that he continued to wrestle with these questions with a tenacity few non-philosophers have exhibited. More important, Lovecraft came to believe that any viable literary work even fiction and poetry -must derive from a sound and accurate view of the universe. While being entirely opposed to literary didacticism, he sensed that his own work at least was the unconscious embodiment of his metaphysical and ethical thought.
Lovecraft's hostility to religion for the principal reason that it made false assertions as to the nature of entity ("The Judaeo-Christian mythology is NOT TRUE" [SL 1.60]) seems to have increased with the years, to the point that he expressed contempt that orthodox religionists would continue to brainwash the young into religious belief in the face of such massive scientific evidence to the contrary. And yet, the findings of modern science did not lead Lovecraft to waver on the issue, as when he spoke of
. . . the new mysticism or neo-metaphysics bred of the advertised uncertainties of recent science Einstein, the quantum theory, and the resolution of matter into force. Although these new turns of science don't mean a thing in relation to the myth of cosmic consciousness and teleology, a new brood of despairing and horrified moderns is seizing on the doubt of all positive knowledge which they imply; and is deducing therefrom that, since nothing is true, therefore anything can be true.....whence one may invent or revive any sort of mythology that fancy or nostalgia or desperation may dictate, and defy anyone to prove that it isn't emotionally true whatever that means. This sickly, decadent neo-mysticism a protest not only against machine materialism but against pure science with its destruction of the mystery and dignity of human emotion and experience will be the dominant creed of middle twentieth century aesthetes, as the Eliot and Huxley penumbra well prognosticate. (SL 3.53)
Lovecraft's ultimate position (derived, as much of the above quotation was, from Joseph Wood Krutch's The Modern Temper) was one of resigned acceptance of the truths of science the truth that the world and the human race occupy an infinitesimal and unimportant place in the cosmic scheme of things; the truth that one lives and dies and that's the end of it. When Lovecraft sought freedom from the constraining bonds of reality, it was not the fact-repudiating freedom of religious belief but the imaginative freedom of weird fiction. It was precisely because Lovecraft felt the universe to be an unswerving mechanism with rigid natural laws that he required the escape of the imagination:
The general revolt of the sensitive mind against the tyranny of corporeal enclosure, restricted sense-equipment, & the laws of force, space, & causation, is a far keener & bitterer & better-founded one than any of the silly revolts of long-haired poseurs against isolated & specific instances of cosmic inevitability. But of course it does not take the form of personal petulance, because there is no convenient scape-goat to saddle the impersonal ill upon. Rather does it crop out as a pervasive sadness & unplaceable impatience, manifested in a love of strange dreams & an amusing eagerness to be galled by the quack cosmic pretensions of the various religious circuses. Well in our day the quack circuses are wearing pretty thin despite the premature senilities of fat Chesterbellocs & affected Waste Land Shantih-dwellers, & the nostalgic & unmotivated "overbeliefs" of elderly & childhood-crippled physicists. The time has come when the normal revolt against time, space, & matter must assume a form not overtly incompatible with what is known of reality when it must be gratified by images forming supplements rather than contradictions of the visible & mensurable universe. And what, if not a form of non-supernatural cosmic art, is to pacify this sense of revolt as well as gratify the cognate sense of curiosity? (SL 3.295-96)
But if Lovecraft's "love of the truth" led him to embrace scientific facts (as he saw them), however unpalatable and destructive of human self-importance they were, his "love of the ancient and the permanent" allowed him to evolve an ethic that placed tradition at its center.
In a cosmos without absolute values we have to rely on the relative values affecting our daily sense of comfort, pleasure, & emotional satisfaction. What gives us relative painlessness & contentment we may arbitrarily call "good", & vice versa. This local nomenclature is necessary to give us that benign illusion of placement, direction, & stable background on which the still more important illusions of "worthwhileness", dramatic significance in events, & interest in life depend. Now what gives one person or race or age relative painlessness & contentment often disagrees sharply on the psychological side from what gives these same boons to another person or race or age. Therefore "good" is a relative & variable quality, depending on ancestry, chronology, geography, nationality, & individual temperament. Amidst this variability there is only one anchor of fixity which we can seize upon as the working pseudo-standard of "values" which we need in order to feel settled & contented & that anchor is tradition, the potent emotional legacy bequeathed to us by the massed experience of our ancestors, individual or national, biological or cultural. Tradition means nothing cosmically, but it means everything locally & pragmatically because we have nothing else to shield us from a devastating sense of "lostness" in endless time & space. (SL 2.356-57)
This seems a little self-serving there is no reason why everyone should feel the sense of tradition so strongly that its absence would breed a feeling of "lostness" but it accounts both for Lovecraft's gentlemanly deportment and for many of his political views. His politics became radically altered in the course of his life he began as a naive monarchist who lamented the American Revolution and the split with England, and ended as a confirmed socialist who wished FDR to proceed even more rapidly with reform but there are points of contact all along the way. Lovecraft's aristocratic upbringing never left him, and his suspicion of democracy actually became more pronounced as events following the depression compelled him to adopt socialism. At the heart of Lovecraft's entire political philosophy was the notion of culture the massed traditions of each race, society, and region. "All I care about is the civilisation the state of development and organisation which is capable of gratifying the complex mental-emotional-aesthetic needs of highly evolved and acutely sensitive men" (SL 2.290) men, one supposes, like Lovecraft. What this means is that anything that stands in the way of the flowering of a rich and harmonious culture for Lovecraft it was principally democracy and capitalism must go. The conjoining of these two forces in the early nineteenth century actually led to the shattering of that high level of culture maintained by the aristocracies of the past:
Bourgeois capitalism gave artistic excellence & sincerity a death-blow by enthroning cheap amusement-value at the expense of that intrinsic excellence which only cultivated, non-acquisitive persons of assured position can enjoy. The determinant market for written, pictorial, musical, dramatic, decorative, architectural, & other heretofore aesthetic material ceased to be a small circle of truly educated persons, but became a substantially larger (even with a vast proportion of society starved & crushed into a sodden, inarticulate helplessness through commercial & commercial-satellitic greed & callousness) circle of mixed origin numerically dominated by crude, half-educated clods whose systematically perverted ideals (worship of low cunning, material acquisition, cheap comfort & smoothness, worldly success, ostentation, speed, intrinsic magnitude, surface glitter, &c.) prevented them from ever achieving the tastes and perspectives of the gentlefolk whose dress & speech & external manners they so assiduously mimicked. This herd of acquisitive boors brought up from the shop & the counting-house a complete set of artificial attitudes, oversimplifications, & mawkish sentimentalities which no sincere art or literature could gratify & they so outnumbered the remaining educated gentlefolk that most of the purveying agencies became at once reoriented to them. Literature & art lost most of their market; & writing, painting, drama, &c. became engulfed more & more in the domain of amusement enterprises. (SL 5.397-98)
The answer was not some rearguard resurrection of the aristocratic principle Lovecraft was realist enough to understand that this was not possible in the America of the 1930s but socialism. Aristocracy and socialism were really mirror images of the same thing:
. . . what I used to respect was not really aristocracy, but a set of personal qualities which aristocracy then developed better than any other system...a set of qualities, however, whose merits lay only in a psychology of non-calculative, non-competitive disinterestedness, truthfulness, courage, & generosity fostered by good education, minimum economic stress, and assumed position, & just as achievable through socialism as through aristocracy. (SL 5.321)
Socialism would mean such basic economic rights as old-age pensions, unemployment insurance, and a vital issue for many economists and lawmakers of the 1930s, but one ultimately rejected by Roosevelt and subsequent administrations shorter working hours so that all who were able to work could have a chance to do so. Lovecraft came to this position because he felt that the dominance of the machine in his day had made it possible for all needed work to be done by a very small number of people; working hours would therefore have to be arbitrarily reduced to spread what little work there was to the populace at large. For Lovecraft this would have an added benefit: the increased leisure time accruing to all individuals could then be used for increased educational and aesthetic purposes, with a resulting rise in the tone of general culture. Lovecraft seemed genuinely convinced toward the end of his life that such a utopia was within reach, and that FDR was the man to bring it about "The recent election gratified me extremely" (SL 5.390), he wrote in February 1937 but it now strikes me as somewhat naive for Lovecraft to have expected that socialism would come so readily to this country or that the average citizen, if given more leisure, would use it to uplift himself in a suitably edifying way. As it is, eight years previous he expressed a sentiment that not only was more in keeping with his distrust of the mob and his hatred of mechanization, but is a sadly accurate prediction of our present state of culture:
Granted that the machine-victim has leisure. What is he going to do with it? What memories and experiences has he to form a background to give significance to anything he can do? What can he see or do that will mean anything to him? . . . What has heretofore made life tolerable for the majority is the fact that their natural workaday routine and milieu have never been quite devoid of the excitement, nature-contact, uncertainty, non-repetition, and free and easy irregularity which build up a background of associations calculated to foster the illusion of significance and make possible the real enjoyment of art and leisure. Without this help from their environment, the majority could never manage to keep contented. Now that it is fading, they are in a bad plight indeed; for they cannot hope to breast the tide of ennui as the stronger-minded minority can. There will be, of course, high-sounding and flabbily idealistic attempts to help the poor devils. We shall hear of all sorts of futile reforms and reformers standardised culture-outlines, synthetic sports and spectacles, professional play-leaders and study-guides, and kindred examples of machine-made uplift and brotherly spirit. And it will amount to just about as much as most reforms do! Meanwhile the tension of boredom and unsatisfied imagination will increase breaking out with increasing frequency in crimes of morbid perversity and explosive violence. (SL 2.308-9)
Perhaps it is just as well that Lovecraft did not survive into his seventies or eighties.
The final component of Lovecraft's political philosophy is racialism. We are past the point of trying (as August Derleth did) to brush this under the rug, but we are, I trust, also moving beyond L. Sprague de Camp's schoolmasterly chiding of Lovecraft for his beliefs without an awareness of their origin and purpose. Indeed, the point at which Lovecraft should rightly be criticized has been misunderstood by many. It is not the mere fact that he expressed obnoxious opinions about blacks, Jews, and just about every other "non-Aryan" race; it is the fact that in this one area of his thought Lovecraft failed to exercise that flexibility of mind that made him come to grips with Einstein and Planck, Eliot and Joyce, FDR and Norman Thomas. In all aspects of his philosophy except this one, Lovecraft was constantly expanding, clarifying, and revising his views to suit the facts of the world; in race alone his attitude remained monolithic. Certainly, his later views are expressed somewhat more rationally (although his comments to J. Vernon Shea in 1933 about the "Jew-York papers" [SL 4.247] do not inspire confidence); but they remained not merely essentially unchanged but more seriously impervious to evidence to the contrary. For example, the first volume of Toynbee's Study of History (1934) had already shattered the "Aryan supremacy" myth; but Lovecraft paid no attention. To the end of his life he regarded blacks and Australian aborigines as biologically inferior to all other human races, and insisted on an impassable color-line. In regard to other races Lovecraft, while attributing to them no inferiority, simply felt that their intermingling would produce a cultural heterogeneity, with deleterious effects on world culture:
No settled & homogeneous nation ought (a) to admit enough of a decidedly alien race-stock to bring about an actual alteration in the dominant ethnic composition, or (b) tolerate the dilution of the culture-stream with emotional & intellectual elements alien to the original cultural impulse. Both of these perils lead to the most undesirable results i.e.,the metamorphosis of the population away from the original institutions, & the twisting of the institutions away from the original people.....all these things being aspects of one underlying & disastrous condition the destruction of cultural stability, & the creation of a hopeless disparity between a social group & the institutions under which it lives. (SL 4.249)
It is as if Lovecraft wished to freeze culture at a certain stage the stage at which he knew it and in which he felt comfortable.
All this has been gone into at such length not merely because the subject still appears to embarrass Lovecraft's apologists who fail to realize that his attitude was not especially unusual in his time, and at least eventually came into harmony with his general philosophy but also because it enters into his fiction in a pervasive way. There can hardly be a doubt that the monsters in "The Lurking Fear" (1922), "The Horror at Red Hook" (1925), and "The Shadow over Innsmouth" (1931) are thinly veiled projections of his racialist fears of an alien overthrow of Nordic culture through excessive immigration and miscegenation. Indeed, when the narrator of the last tale overhears some Innsmouth denizens "exchang[ing] some faint guttural words . . . in a language I could have sworn was not English" (DH, 341), we are evidently to feel not merely a mild disturbance but a sense of cosmic alienage. Certainly Lovecraft's two years in the slums of New York did not help to reform him; nor, apparently, did his marriage to a Jew.
Lovecraft's aristocratic sentiments also led to the central tenet of his aesthetic theory that of non-commercial self-expression. We are, of course, meant to smile when Lovecraft writes: "A gentleman shouldn't write all his images down for a plebeian rabble to stare at. If he writes at all, it shou'd be in private letters to other gentlemen of sensitiveness and discrimination" (SL 1.243). But the core notion was one Lovecraft acknowledged from the beginning to the end of his career. Once the act of creation the act of capturing those moods, images, and conceptions that clamor within the artist for expression is complete, the task of writing is done. Even publication of the work is of no importance or, rather, it is an entirely separate process that has nothing to do with writing. We can call this "art for art's sake" if we wish; but although Lovecraft certainly drew upon Poe, Wilde, and Pater for this attitude, as well as for his general hostility to overt didacticism it was really more than that. "Writing after all is the essence of whatever is left in my life, & if the ability or opportunity for that goes, I have no further reason for or mind to endure the joke of existence." (4) To E. Hoffmann Price, the prototypical pulp hack, Lovecraft explained at length why he could not cater to the pulp magazines:
Art is not what one resolves to say, but what insists on saying itself through one. It has nothing to do with commerce, editorial demand, or popular approval. The only elements concerned are the artist and the emotions working within him. Of course, there is a business of magazine-purveying which is perfectly honest in itself, and a worthy field for those with a knack for it. I wish I had the knack. But this isn't the thing I'm interested in. If I had the knack, it would be something performed entirely apart from my serious work just as my present revisory activities are. However, I haven't the knack, and the field is so repugnant to me that it's about the last way I'd ever choose to gain shelter and clothing and nourishment. Any other kind of a legitimate job would be preferable to my especial tastes. I dislike this trade because it bears a mocking external resemblance to the real literary composition which is the only thing (apart from ancestral traditions) I take seriously in life. (SL 5.19-20)
This whole attitude accounts for a number of things Lovecraft's initial reluctance to submit to Weird Tales; his subsequent reluctance to diversify his markets even when Weird Tales rejected some of his best work; his diffidence in approaching book publishers with a novel or story collection. To us it seems like near-criminal folly for Lovecraft never to have even attempted to prepare The Case of Charles Dexter Ward (1927) for publication, at a time when several publishers would have been more receptive to a novel than to a collection of tales; but it was Lovecraft's prerogative to feel that that novel was not a success and that it should not see print. His final years were dogged by increasing poverty in 1936 the providential sale of two stories (arranged by friends acting as agents) to Astounding for $630 essentially saved him from the bread line but even at that time Lovecraft failed to buckle down to hackwork. It need hardly be said that Lovecraft has been vindicated: no one is writing a doctoral dissertation on the work of E. Hoffmann Price or Seabury Quinn.
In the short term Lovecraft's reputation will certainly rest upon his sixty or so short stories, novelettes, and short novels, and it is right that the bulk of the articles in this volume focus upon them. I myself can only touch upon the broadest features of his fiction here, and then dwell briefly on other bodies of his work.
A useful starting-point for the study of the philosophy of Lovecraft's fiction is his own epochal statement of 1927:
Now all my tales are based on the fundamental premise that common human laws and interests and emotions have no validity or significance in the vast cosmos-at-large. To me there is nothing but puerility in a tale in which the human form and the local human passions and conditions and standards are depicted as native to other worlds or other universes. To achieve the essence of real externality, whether of time or space or dimension, one must forget that such things as organic life, good and evil, love and hate, and all such local attributes of a negligible and temporary race called mankind, have any existence at all. Only the human scenes and characters must have human qualities. These must be handled with unsparing realism, (not catch-penny romanticism) but when we cross the line to the boundless and hideous unknown the shadow-haunted Outside we must remember to leave our humanity and terrestrialism at the threshold. (SL 2.150)
This statement emphasizing the fundamental amorality of his fictional cosmos was made in conjunction with the resubmittal of "The Call of Cthulhu" (1926) to Weird Tales; and there can hardly be a doubt that that tale marks a watershed in Lovecraft's work, although perhaps not exactly in the way many think. To be sure, it marks the debut of Lovecraft's convoluted pseudomythology, dubbed by August Derleth the "Cthulhu Mythos"; but in truth it reveals that Lovecraft has taken not merely the world but the cosmos for his backdrop. The cosmicism that became so distinctive a feature of his later fiction was observable only tangentially in his work prior to 1926, even though it had been an aesthetic goal from the beginning; as early as 1921 Lovecraft had written:
I could not write about "ordinary people" because I am not in the least interested in them. Without interest there can be no art. Man's relations to man do not captivate my fancy. It is man's relations to the cosmos to the unknown which alone arouses in me the spark of creative imagination. The humanocentric pose is impossible to me, for I cannot acquire the primitive myopia which magnifies the earth and ignores the background. (In Defence of Dagon )
This is all well and good, but where do we find it in the early tales? The second story of Lovecraft's maturity, "Dagon" (1917), suggests it dimly in its brief glimpse of a vast "Polyphemus-like" sea-creature; but that is about all. What is even more curious is that the many tales of the 1919-21 period inspired by Lord Dunsany of whom Lovecraft claimed flamboyantly in Supernatural Horror in Literature that "His point of view is the most truly cosmic of any held in the literature of any period" are themselves singularly uncosmic, seeking instead to imitate the homely, folktalelike quality that is a feature of some of Dunsany's work.
But all this changes with "The Call of Cthulhu." At this point I will not enter into the vexed question of how useful it is to bracket off those of Lovecraft's tales which employ his imaginary pantheon (Azathoth, Nyarlathotep, Yog-Sothoth, etc.) or imaginary New England topography (Arkham, Kingsport, Dunwich, Innsmouth, etc.) or other appurtenances, such as the mythical books of occult lore like the Necronomicon or De Vermis Mysteriis. After Lovecraft's death (or even before, as Will Murray has argued) all this became a sort of "parlor game" (in Maurice Lévy's apt phrase) as second-rate writers imitated the outward form of the "Cthulhu Mythos" but not its inner philosophical substance. Even more so than the countless epigoni of Sherlock Holmes, these imitations have cast a dubious light on Lovecraft himself, and it is understandable that critics like David E. Schultz would wish to discard the whole framework of the mythos as more of a hindrance than a help to the understanding of Lovecraft. But the fact is that Lovecraft did use his pseudomythology more concentratedly in some tales than in others, and because of this they really do gain a cumulative power they would not have as independent units.
What we derive from Lovecraft's later fiction is a brutal sense of mankind's hopelessly infinitesimal place in the cosmic scheme of things. In Lovecraft's fictional cosmos, successive waves of alien races (they are always whole cultures or civilizations, not isolated individuals) came to the earth millions of years ago, erected vast cities, held sway over enormous empires, and finally vanished long before the advent of humanity. Each of these races is incalculably superior to us physically, intellectually, and most telling of all, aesthetically. The Great Race in "The Shadow out of Time" have a vast archive full of documents about all the species in the cosmos; the record for mankind is housed on the "lowest or vertebrate section." Worse, the Old Ones of At the Mountains of Madness, who came from the stars and established themselves in Antarctica, are "supposed to have created all earth-life as jest or mistake." We are merely the inconsequential and accidental byproduct of another race.
The passage quoted earlier citing Lovecraft's desideratum of a "non-supernatural cosmic art" (SL 3.296) is also of vital importance in understanding both Lovecraft's fictional goals and his place in the history of weird fiction. The events and entities in Lovecraft's later tales are "non-supernatural" in not overtly contradicting reality as we know it; rather, they embody those "natural laws" not yet known to us. When, in "Notes on Writing Weird Fiction," Lovecraft speaks of "one of my strongest and most persistent wishes being to achieve, momentarily, the illusion of some strange suspension or violation of the galling limitations of time, space, and natural law which forever imprison us and frustrate our curiosity about the infinite cosmic spaces beyond the radius of our sight and analysis," he is careful to specify "the illusion" of a violation. This notion is clarified in a letter:
The crux of a weird tale is something which could not possibly happen. If any unexpected advance of physics, chemistry, or biology were to indicate the possibility of any phenomena related by the weird tale, that particular set of phenomena would cease to be weird in the ultimate sense because it would become surrounded by a different set of emotions. It would no longer represent imaginative liberation, because it would no longer indicate a suspension or violation of the natural laws against whose universal dominance our fancies rebel. (SL 3.434)
This notion that the events in a weird tale must form "supplements rather than contradictions of the visible & mensurable universe" (SL 3.295-96) is what gives Lovecraft his unique place as an unclassifiable amalgam of fantasy and science fiction; it is not surprising that he has considerably influenced the subsequent development of both genres.
If Lovecraft is capable of suggesting the awesome gulfs of the cosmos as well as any writer in literature, he can also in his tales depict the reality of the mundane landscape the Vermont backwoods in "The Whisperer in Darkness"; the frozen Antarctic in At the Mountains of Madness; the insidious decay of the once-thriving seaport Innsmouth in "The Shadow over Innsmouth." There is no paradox in this, and in "Notes on Writing Weird Fiction" he defends both his topographical realism and his diminution of human characters as part of a single aesthetic aim.
In writing a weird story I always try very carefully to achieve the right mood and atmosphere, and place the emphasis where it belongs. One cannot, except in immature pulp charlatan-fiction, present an account of impossible, improbable, or inconceivable phenomena as a commonplace narrative of objective acts and conventional emotions. Inconceivable events and conditions have a special handicap to overcome, and this can be accomplished only through the maintenance of a careful realism in every phase of the story except that touching on the one given marvel. This marvel must be treated very impressively and deliberately with a careful emotional "build-up" else it will seem flat and unconvincing. Being the principal thing in the story, its mere existence should overshadow the characters and events. But the characters and events must be consistent and natural except where they touch the single marvel. (Miscellaneous Writings, p. 113)
Realism, then, is not a goal but a function in Lovecraft; it facilitates the perception that "something which could not possibly happen" is actually happening. So too with Lovecraft's style. A dense, richly textured style tends to aid in the creation of that "mood and atmosphere" toward which Lovecraft bent all his efforts. His style, of course, has been much criticized, and there is no question but that his early work is "overwritten" in a way he himself later deprecated; but the later Lovecraft prose is as precise, musical, and evocative as anything out of Dunsany or Machen, his stylistic paragons. One is of course at liberty, with Edmund Wilson or Jacques Barzun, not to like the style; but to condemn an Asianic style merely for being Asianic (and that, frankly, is all I can derive from the majority of such criticisms) does not strike me as especially sound methodology. One should merely wallow sensuously in a passage like this:
The Thing cannot be described there is no language for such abysms of shrieking and immemorial lunacy, such eldritch contradictions of all matter, force, and cosmic order. A mountain walked or stumbled. God! What wonder that across the earth a great architect went mad, and poor Wilcox raved with fever in that telepathic instant? The Thing of the idols, the green, sticky spawn of the stars, had awaked to claim his own. The stars were right again, and what an age-old cult had failed to do by design, a band of innocent sailors had done by accident. After vigintillions of years great Cthulhu was loose again, and ravening for delight.
And we must remember that nearly thirty pages of clinical, meticulous prose have supplied that "careful emotional 'build-up'" for this climactic moment.
The majority of Lovecraft's essays were written during his intensive amateur phase roughly 1914-22. They are stiff, formal, and dogmatic; Lovecraft certainly showed that he could write like a twentieth-century Addison, but also showed the rigidity of mind that came from bookishness, sequestration, and simply an ignorance of the world. But this did not last long. Lovecraft well knew how important was his involvement in the world of amateur letters: his dogmatism began to be chipped away as he encountered opinions very different from his, whether it be the fin-de-siècle Hellenism of Samuel Loveman, the orthodox religiosity of Maurice W. Moe, the light-hearted eroticism of Rheinhart Kleiner, or the evangelical atheism of James F. Morton. Lovecraft never completely relinquished his cherished predilections love of the weird; championing of classicism over romanticism; an earnest but not fanatical or ethically irresponsible atheism but they were modified and honed through his amateur contacts. In this sense his early essays along with his staggeringly voluminous correspondence were formative influences of the most important sort.
The essays of his last decade or so no longer written spontaneously but only for specific occasions reflect the change. As early as 1924, in spite of his lifelong opposition to the extremist trends of modern literature stream-of-consciousness, imagism, plodding realism he could declare that Joyce's Ulysses and Cabell's Jurgen were "significant contributions to contemporary art"; (5) "Cats and Dogs" (1926) playfully but acutely sees the cat as a symbol for many of Lovecraft's favored human traits aristocracy, aloofness, dignity, grace; "Some Causes of Self-Immolation" (1931), in spite of its jocular title, is a serious study of human psychology; and, perhaps most impressive of all, "Some Repetitions on the Times" (1933) is an earnest and almost harried plea to remedy the crushing economic woes of the time through modified socialism. All these essays display a flexibility, crispness of style, and intellectual rigor found in few of their predecessors, save perhaps the superb In Defence of Dagon essays (1921), where Lovecraft defends his aesthetics and metaphysics with a scintillating rhetoric found perhaps nowhere else in his work except in some of his argumentative letters.
Lovecraft's essays on amateur affairs remain the bulkiest of his nonfictional work, and testify to the mutual benefit he both derived and gave to the amateur cause. Even if Lovecraft eventually became somewhat disenchanted with the movement even if he found that most of its members were merely hapless and egotistical tyros rather than disinterested pursuers of self-expression he never dissociated himself from it. We must read the countless installments of Lovecraft's "Department of Public Criticism" where with unfailing patience he points out the grammatical and aesthetic blunders of each and every contribution to the UAPA for that season or his voluminous "News Notes," where he reports on the comings and goings of various amateurs (including himself), to perceive the depth of his attachment to amateurdom. Many nowadays see Lovecraft merely as the most prominent of the pulp writers; but in fact he was never a pulp writer at all (he published in the pulps from necessity, not inclination), and his amateur phase can be seen to be far more significant than his involvement with pulp fiction.
Lovecraft's travel essays form a unique body of his work. True, few of us have the patience to wade through the eighteenth-century diction of A Description of the Town of Quebeck (1930-31) his single longest work, and a self-conscious flaunting of his utterly non-commercial stance but such things as "Vermont A First Impression" (1927) or "The Unknown City in the Ocean" (1934; on Nantucket) speak poignantly of his constant need to be aesthetically revivified by actual contact with the relics of the past.
As a general literary critic Lovecraft will never gain much acclaim; but it is arguable that he is still the acutest critic of weird fiction, and this not merely on the strength of Supernatural Horror in Literature (1925-27) but also on other essays like "Notes on Writing Weird Fiction" (1933) and especially the masses of incidental comment in his letters. All this body of work shows that Lovecraft's principles of weird writing were clearly formed at a fairly early stage in his career and continued to be elaborated as he read new work or discussed the matter with his many colleagues in the field. As an ancillary to this material one ought to mention his invaluable Commonplace Book, a storehouse of plots and images gleaned form his wide readings, dreams, and other experiences. Only recently, in the critical edition of David E. Schultz, have we finally been able to see how intimately a part of his writing process were the seeming random and disjointed entries in this little notebook.
Lovecraft saw his deficiencies as a poet fairly early on; he knew that his real purpose in such things as "Old Christmas" (1917) or "Myrrha and Strephon" (1919) was not aesthetic expression but undiluted antiquarianism:
In my metrical novitiate I was, alas, a chronic & inveterate mimic; allowing my antiquarian tendencies to get the better of my abstract poetic feeling. As a result, the whole purpose of my writing soon became distorted till at length I wrote only as a means of re-creating around me the atmosphere of my 18th century favourites. Self-expression as such sank out of sight, & my sole test of excellence was the degree with which I approached the style of Mr. Pope, Dr. Young, Mr. Thomson, Mr. Addison, Mr. Tickell, Mr. Parnell, Dr. Goldsmith, Dr. Johnson, & so on. (SL 2.314-15)
Lovecraft remained faithful to the eighteenth-century poets, although he came to regard as the true giants of English poetry such Romantics as Keats and Shelley and such of his predecessors and contemporaries as the early Swinburne and Yeats. And yet, given his belief that poetry should be "simple, direct, non-intellectual, clothed in symbols & images rather than ideas and statements" (6) a definition he used to denigrate the Metaphysicals just then reviving in critical esteem he seemed to realize amazingly early that there may have been something lacking in his beloved Dryden and Pope: "I am aware that my favourite Georgians lacked much in the spirit of poesy but I do admire their verse, as verse."(7) This was written in 1918; and although it is not quite an echo of Matthew Arnold's claim that Dryden and Pope were really masters of English prose, it at least acknowledges that the Georgians' principal virtue was not poetic instinct but metrical dexterity. In any case, the unfortunate result of Lovecraft's early adoption of the verse forms of the early eighteenth century is a mass of perfectly competent (from a metrical standpoint) but entirely lifeless and contentless poetry up to about 1925, with only intermittent points of interest: a number of pungent satires, from "Ad Criticos" (1913-14) to "Medusa: A Portrait" (1921);(8) the flawless Georgianism of "Sunset" (1917); the exquisite self-parodies "On the Death of a Rhyming Critic" (1917) and "The Dead Bookworm" (1919). The horrific verse from "The Poe-et's Nightmare" (1916), with its potent blank-verse distillation of his cosmic philosophy, to the brooding "A Cycle of Verse" (1919) retains a little more life, although we could do without such mechanical Poe pastiches as "The House" (1919) or "The Nightmare Lake" (1919).
Curiously enough, however, Lovecraft got away from all this. From 1922 to 1928 he wrote almost no poetry: clearly his creative energies had shifted to fiction. Even some of this poetry reveals an incipient shaking off of eighteenth-century models: "My Favourite Character" and "A Year Off" (both 1925) have something of the flavor of Locker-Lampson and the vers de société of the later nineteenth century, and could well have been influenced by Rheinhart Kleiner, an unknown master of this light form. But then suddenly we come upon the sonnet "Recapture" (November 1929; later incorporated into Fungi from Yuggoth), which is so unlike anything Lovecraft had written before that both Winfield Townley Scott and Edmund Wilson were led to suspect (groundlessly, as it happens) that in it, as well as in the rest of Fungi from Yuggoth (1929-30), Lovecraft was influenced by Edwin Arlington Robinson. But if we study Lovecraft's aesthetic thought of this time we may learn that the change was perhaps not so sudden. By 1928 he is already railing against the use of the archaisms, inversions, and "poetic language" that had cluttered his earlier verse. He had begun to realize that living poetry cannot wear the garments of a prior day, and saw that his own previous poetry had merely been a vast psychological game he had played with himself an attempt to retreat into the eighteenth century as feeble and pathetic as his longing for a periwig and knee-breeches. But when he sent "Recapture" to a correspondent, he added the note: "Speaking of my stuff I enclose another recent specimen illustrative of my efforts to practice what I preach regarding direct and unaffected diction a sort of irregular semi-sonnet, based on an actual dream."(9)
What had triggered this radical shift? There must have been a number of factors. Principally it was simply his awareness that the twentieth century was not a nightmare from which one could simply wake up and walk away but an age whose uniqueness demanded expression in art and literature; secondly, Lovecraft may have been struck by the brilliant poetry of his friend Clark Ashton Smith, who could have shown Lovecraft how to harmonize a very selective use of archaism with a generally modern and vigorous approach; most directly, there was Lovecraft's work on a poetic handbook, Doorways to Poetry (never published), for his friend Maurice W. Moe, and his reading of Donald Wandrei's Sonnets of the Midnight Hours (1927), probably the direct model for Lovecraft's Fungi from Yuggoth. In any case, his sonnet-cycle, while by no means radical, can take its place with the work of other conservative poets of the day Rupert Brooke, Ralph Hodgson, Robert Hillyer, John Masefield, Walter de la Mare, and others. Lovecraft may never be known for his poetry; but at its best it offers the same elements of cosmic horror, purity of diction, and philosophic resonance that characterize his prose.
Of Lovecraft's letters it is difficult to speak in short compass. In sheer quantity they dwarf the rest of his oeuvre to complete insignificance. Although at the moment they are known only to the inner circle of Lovecraft scholars, they are arguably some of the most remarkable literary documents of the century, and it is even conceivable that in the distant future his reputation will rest more on them than on his fiction. It is to the letters that we go for information on Lovecraft's life, for details about his literary work, for the particulars of his philosophical thought; but more than mere utilitarian adjuncts to scholarship, they are some of the most beautiful things of their kind. Lovecraft had no compunction writing letters of fifty, sixty, or even seventy pages; and it is in these heroic epistles longer than most of his stories that he reveals his true greatness and diversity as an artist. From technical philosophizing to farcical and self-parodic humor; from playful archaism to blunt colloquialism; from poignant reflections on the cosmic insignificance of mankind to heated discussions of political and economic regeneration, the letters run the gamut of subject, tone, and mood. I cannot resist quoting at length Lovecraft's chiding of Frank Long for his equation of science and technology:
Listen, young man. Forget all about your books & machine-made current associations. Kick the present dying parody on civilisation out the back door of consciousness. Shelve the popular second-hand dishings-up of Marxian economic determinism a genuine force within certain limits, but without the widest ramifications ascribed to it by the fashionable New Republic & Nation clique. For once in your life, live up to your non-contemporary ideal & do some thinking without the 1930-31 publishers' sausage-grist at your elbow! Get back to the Ionian coast, shovel away some 2500 years, & tell Grandpa who it is you find in a villa at Miletus studying the properties of loadstone & amber, predicting eclipses, explaining the moon's phases, & applying to physics & astronomy the principles of research he learned in Egypt. Thales quite a boy in his day. Ever hear of him before? He wanted to know things. Odd taste, wasn't it? And to think, he never tried to manufacture rayon or form a joint-stock company or pipe oil from Mesopotamia or extract gold from sea-water! Funny old guy wanted to know things, yet never thought of a collectivist state....leaving this last for the unctuous windbag Plato, upon whom the moustacheletted little Chestertons of a later aera were to dote. Bless me, but do you suppose he actually had the normal human instinct of curiosity & simply wanted knowledge to satisfy that elemental urge? Perish such an un-modern & un-Marxian thought.....yet one has dim suspicions........ And then this bozo Pythagoras. What did he want to bother with that old "what is anything" question for? And Heraclitus & Anaxagoras & Anaximander & Democritus & Leucippus & Empedocles? Well if you take the word of your precious old satyr-faced pragmatist Socrates, these ginks merely wanted to know things for the sake of knowing! According to this beloved super-Babbitt of yours, who brought down philosophy from the clouds to serve among men serve useful ends in a civically acceptable fashion the old naturalists & sophists were a sorry lot. Your dear Plato agreed. They were not social-minded or collectivistic. Tut, tut they were actually selfish individualists who gratified the personal human instinct of cosmic curiosity for its own sake. Ugh! take them away! Moustacheletted young Platonists want nothing to do with such outlawed & unregimented pleasure-seekers. They simply couldn't have been real "scientists", since they didn't serve big business or have altruistic or bolshevistic motivations. Practically & Marxianly speaking, there simply weren't any such people. How could there be? "Science" is (they print it in books) the servant of the machine age. Since ancient Ionia had no machine age, how could there be "Science"? (SL 3.298-99)
But it is in letters of less intrinsic interest that Lovecraft displays his full humanity. For eight years he corresponded regularly with Elizabeth Toldridge, a would-be poet who was disabled and could not leave her apartment in Washington, D.C.; and although we can tell, from Lovecraft's side of the correspondence, that she was hopelessly conventional and Victorian in her outlook, Lovecraft never failed to answer every point made in her letters and acknowledge the books and newspaper clippings she sent him. Lovecraft was neither condescending nor dishonest with her he made no bones about not ascribing to her benign theism, her admiration of tame late Victorian poetry, or her political and economic conservatism. Only his death curtailed this correspondence. The tireless help and encouragement Lovecraft gave, even on his deathbed, to all his correspondents young and old makes one wonder little at the admiration and even reverence that all his colleagues extended to him during his lifetime and after his death. If the publication of Lovecraft's collected correspondence in dozens or perhaps hundreds of volumes is, at least for the present, an unrealizable dream, it is perhaps a dream worth keeping in our minds.
There is now little need to rehearse the details of Lovecraft's posthumous resurrection: the attempts by August Derleth and Donald Wandrei to find a publisher for an omnibus of his tales; their founding of Arkham Hose when they failed in that enterprise; the emergence of a youthful band of enthusiasts in the growing fantasy fandom movement (blasted by Edmund Wilson as "on even a more infantile level than the Baker Street Irregulars and the cult of Sherlock Holmes" he was probably right); the gradual dissemination of Lovecraft's stories in paperback, including an Armed Services edition; the periodic publication by Arkham House of volumes of tales, poems, essays, and miscellany from the forties to the sixties; the translation of Lovecraft into French and Spanish in the fifties, German, Italian, and Dutch in the sixties, and Japanese and the Scandinavian languages in the seventies; the stupendous popularity of the Beagle/Ballantine paperbacks in the seventies; the reprinting of minor works by the fan or specialty press in the seventies and eighties; and, finally, the republication of his collected fiction in textually correct editions from Arkham House under my editorship. And yet, his fiction has yet to be published by a major commercial or academic firm in hardcover in this country (in Europe and Asia elaborate illustrated or slipcased editions have appeared in the last two decades, and foreign editions are invariably reviewed in leading journals and newspapers); his essays, poetry, and letters have not reached anything like wide distribution; and, most important of all, the study of his life, work, and thought remains largely in the hands of independent scholars emerging from the science fiction or fantasy field, although a few of these have published in the academic press.
It is this last point that I shall dwell on briefly in concluding this piece. Prior to 1971 (the death of August Derleth), the number of academicians or mainstream critics who even discussed Lovecraft could be counted on the fingers of one hand: we have mentioned Edmund Wilson, Colin Wilson, and T. O. Mabbott, and mention should be made of Peter Penzoldt, the Swiss scholar who in The Supernatural in Fiction (1952) devoted what are still some of the most illuminating pages on Lovecraft's style and theory of weird fiction. But his is an isolated instance of a non-condescending treatment. In this early stage the foundations of Lovecraft criticism were ably laid by George T. Wetzel, Matthew H. Onderdonk, and especially Fritz Leiber, whose "A Literary Copernicus" (1949) may still be the single best general article ever written on Lovecraft. Little was done in the 1950s (the special Lovecraft issue of the University of Detroit literary magazine, Fresco [Spring 1958], is ephemeral and insubstantial) or the 1960s; and it seemed to require the death of August Derleth and, perhaps, the publication of the Selected Letters beginning in 1965 to spur renewed scholarly interest in Lovecraft. The dismantling of Derleth's many erroneous conceptions of Lovecraft the man and writer began with Richard L. Tierney and Dirk W. Mosig; L. Sprague de Camp wrote a controversial biography after he saw that Derleth had failed to finish his; and finally, the establishment of Lovecraft Studies in 1979 provided a focus for informed discussion of Lovecraft, although inevitably that discussion was and is still conducted predominantly by non-academicians. How much of this scholarship is actually seeping into the general academic community it is difficult to say; perhaps it is still too early to speak definitively on the matter.
It can hardly be denied that many current Lovecraftians still write as if they are evangelically trying to convert the heathen; I am myself not exempt from this tendency. But if the academic and critical establishment continues to ignore Lovecraft whether because of a general prejudice toward the weird tale or because of some perceived failing in Lovecraft's own work it ought to be no business of mine. I have found Lovecraft an enormously rewarding and enriching writer; but perhaps it will take another hundred years for the general literary public to come to that realization.
S.T. Joshi; Revised 1 June 2007
This Scriptorium piece is a modification of the introductory essay to An Epicure of the Terrible: A Centennial Anthology of Essays in the Honor of H.P. Lovecraft, edited by David E. Schultz and S.T. Joshi. The Modern Word and S. T. Joshi would like to thank Associated University Presses, Inc., for their permission to use this material.
[Abbreviations used in this essay: JHL = H. P. Lovecraft Papers, John Hay Library, Brown University. SL = Selected Letters (Arkham House, 1965-76; 5 vols.).]
(1) First printed in Juvenilia (Necronomicon Press, 1984), pp. 15-18.
(2) "What Amateurdom and I Have Done for Each Other" (1921); rpt. Miscellaneous Writings (Arkham House, 1995), p. 452.
(3) The Private Life of H. P. Lovecraft (Necronomicon Press, 1985), p. 15.
(4) Lovecraft to Mrs. F. C. Clark, 17 November 1924 (ms., JHL).
(5) "The Omnipresent Philistine" (1924); rpt. Miscellaneous Writings, p. 242.
(6) Lovecraft to Lee McBride White, Jr., 10 February 1936 (ms., JHL).
(7) Lovecraft to Alfred Galpin, 27 May  (ms., JHL).
(8) Lovecraft's best satire, "Waste Paper" (1923), a vicious but telling parody of The Waste Land, of course owes nothing to the eighteenth century.
(9) Lovecraft to Elizabeth Toldridge, 26 November 1929 (ms., JHL).
More on H.P. Lovecraft
Interview with Hippocampus Press The Modern Word interviews Derrick Hussey, founder of Hippocampus Press.
A Mountain Walked or Stumbled: Madness, Apocalypse, and H.P. Lovecraft’s “The Call of Cthulhu” (PDF)
By Justin Taylor
This essay presents a close reading of Lovecraft's seminal story “The Call of Cthulhu.” It focuses on the link drawn between tropes of madness and tropes of the apocalyptic, and examines Lovecraft’s use of textuality and intertextuality.
Note: There are countless sites on Lovecraft and the Cthulhu Mythos. Rather than endeavor to keep track of them all, here are a few of the better sites you can use most of these as a launch-pad to for further exploration of the Lovecraftian Web.
The H.P. Lovecraft Archive Maintained by Donovan K. Loucks, this high-quality site is one of the best Lovecraft sites on the Web. Highly recommended.
The H.P. Lovecraft Archive Internet Resources Page Again by Donovan K. Loucks, this page holds a comprehensive collection of Lovecraft links, chat groups, FTP sites, and bulliten boards.
H.P. Lovecraft Biography Page By Alan Gullette, this page hosts a nice biography and a well-organized set of links.
The Temple of Dagon A wonderful Lovecraft resource with original writings, reviews, and interviews.
New! The Ministry of Certain Things Martin Allen’s site attempts to collect all the writings of Lovecraft currently in the public domain.
Interview with S.T. Joshi Online at Acid Logic, Joshi discusses H.P. Lovecraft, pulp fiction, Hippocampus Press, and doughnuts.
Arkham House Online The homepage for the noted publishers of Lovecraft's work.
Hippocampus Press Hippocampus publishes classic horror and science fiction, with an emphasis on the works of H. P. Lovecraft and the "Lovecraft Circle."
New! The H.P. Lovecraft Historical Society These amazing people seem to be in charge of dragging the world of the Mythos into reality, once piece at a time. A must-visit.
Miskatonic University Homepage Maintained by Alfred L. Smith, Webmaster.
Chaosium Online The homepage for Chaosium games, the publishers of the Call of Cthulhu role playing game.
Pagan Publishing The homepage for Pagan, an indie company that produces materiuals for Chaosium's CoC game.
|S.T. Joshi is H.P. Lovecraft's leading critic and biographer, the author of H.P. Lovecraft: The Decline of the West (1990) and H.P. Lovecraft: A Life (1996). He has edited numerous collections of Lovecraft's writing, as well as collections of critical essays. He is the editor of Lovecraft Studies and Studies in Weird Fiction, and is currently pursuing research on Ambrose Bierce and George Sterling.
There is a small entry for S.T. Joshi at Wikipedia.
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