This article was originally published on Ferretbrain. I’ve backdated it to its original Ferretbrain publication date but it may have been edited and amended since its original appearance.
Now that we’ve covered Lovecraft’s juvenile works, we can take in his early adult career. Lovecraft’s transition into adulthood was, to put it mildly, a bit of a bumpy one, and it pretty much shut down his fiction output for nearly a decade. During that time, he made his big effort to craft himself into a poet, took up his science writing again, and broke into the hobby world of amateur publishing, all of which I am going to try and take in with this article. I’m also going to include a bit more biographical notes than I intend to include in other portions of this article series, firstly because I think these details are significant to the writing of The Tomb, his return to fiction, and secondly because I think there is a significant enough autobiographical dimension to The Tomb that knowing these details aids greatly in its interpretation. Lastly, I will look at The Tomb itself, to see how Lovecraft’s approach to fiction had developed as a result of life experience and a substantial number of years spent away from such stories.
At the end of Lovecraft’s last year of formal education he suffered a serious breakdown (which may have been purely psychological, or may have been connected to a serious head injury he somehow suffered whilst exploring an abandoned house), and in the future he would feel acutely embarrassed by his failure to obtain a high school graduation certificate or to attend university. One of the few writings Lovecraft issued to the outside world during his 1908-1913 period of seclusion was a letter to the Providence Sunday Journal in late 1909, in which he recounts how on a night-time walkabout on Christmas Eve he stumbled across a group of people who had mistaken Venus for lights from an airship, and was able to point out their mistake.
It’s an interesting piece because it establishes that he wasn’t a total shut-in at the time, though it does corroborate the fact that he was keeping odd hours, and elsewhere he reports that he actively tried to avoid contact with anything and anyone by sitting in his room with all the shades drawn. The combination of social isolation with having to witness his high school colleagues move away, get jobs, get married, and otherwise take on the responsibilities of adult life as they were (and still are) conventionally thought of makes Lovecraft an early prototype for the sort of “prolonged adolescence” often attributed to people in this day and age.
It probably did not help that around this time his mother, Susie Lovecraft, seems to have been suffering from mental health difficulties of her own. I was particularly struck about an anecdote from friend of the family Clara Hess which Joshi relates, in which Clara notes how during a visit Susie started talking about how Lovecraft was cloistering himself in the room because he was too hideous to allow anyone to see; the tone of the anecdote suggests that Susie was quite serious about her belief that Lovecraft was some sort of mutant, though the possibility that she was merely repeating things which Lovecraft himself had insisted on is also there.
Let us set aside any suggestion of a Pickman’s Model or Shadow Over Innsmouth-type transformation on Lovecraft’s part, which is surely (surely!) not the case; the impression I get, based on this and other accounts of Susie reinforcing Lovecraft’s negative self-image, is that Susie and Howard Lovecraft may have had one of those really grim relationships where each person’s particular issues exacerbates the other’s, and you have this nasty feedback loop which creates a really bad atmosphere. If that were the case, it would certainly go some way to explaining why it took so long for Lovecraft to feel his way out of the dark, lonely pit his breakdown had dumped him in.
For the next few years, in between maintaining his astronomical interests Lovecraft attempted correspondence courses to try and master chemistry despite his difficulty with mathematics, perhaps hoping that by doing so he could get onto some sort of university chemistry course despite his lack of a high school diploma; surviving written material from this era is almost nonexistent.
In around 1911 to 1912, he abandoned his hopes of becoming a chemist and instead switched to focusing on his poetry. Eventually, Lovecraft would consider this a mistake, and thought that he would have been far better off had he instead seen to some sort of training in clerical work which would have allowed him to get a sensible office job, saving his creative endeavours for his spare time, (Since he admitted he didn’t really do much writing except when inspiration struck him, I’m not sure we’d have even lost that much of his output had he taken this course.) But he was naive enough at the time to imagine that having enough money to get by was just the sort of automatic state of nature, and proceeded on the basis that he “could always sell a story or a poem or something” if money was tight; this was a massive miscalculation, made all the more acute by the fact that his poetry for the most part is… well… bad.
A large part of this is due to Lovecraft settling into a stylistic rut and obstinately sticking there for a large chunk of his poetic career. Due in no small part to his aesthetic tastes being so rooted in the 18th Century, he became locked into a pattern where he’d use 18th Century-style Alexandrine heroic couplets for almost all of his poetry, with exceptions few and far between and usually attempted for the sake of parodying poetic styles he disliked or illustrating why he didn’t think he could make competent work without his heroic couplet training wheels.
Ironically, Lovecraft’s work outside of this poetic comfort zone tends to be notably better than his work within it; however, he didn’t really abandon this style until a good while after he had switched back to prose fiction as the main focus of his creative activity, at which point his poetic output slowed to a trickle. The upshot of this is that the bulk of Lovecraft’s poetry hails from this time period – and the bulk of it is in his Alexandrine mode. Much of his poetry in this style is stuffy, old-fashioned, and heavy-handed; weirdly, Lovecraft seems to have been acutely aware of his limits as a poet even during this period of his work, but moaned that his ability to evoke poetic imagery and emotions was so limited that he needed to maintain strict metrical form and stay true to his aesthetic tastes regardless of how lukewarm the result was, because at this point of time he considered it more important to be formally correct than creatively interesting.
In terms of subject matter, a fair few of his poems from his era are just not especially interesting – little bits of doggerel written for friends, family, social clubs and the like to mark special occasions, for instance, or tributes to the seasons or favourite spots of natural beauty. It’s basically the sort of stuff people jot down in greetings cards if they want to get a little fancy but don’t want to expend the effort or word count on doing one of those interminable “family newsletters” that we all have That One Relative who insists on doing each Christmas, and has about as much enduring interest.
A more serious strand of his poems were based around political commentary, usually of a hardline xenophobic bent. Lovecraft really seemed hooked on the myth that Americans of white British descent were the authentic Americans, and everyone else was just some sort of lousy interloper or outright degenerate subhuman filth. This is sort of attitude was, of course, hardly uncommon at the time, particularly along New Englanders of Lovecraft’s social class, but Lovecraft seems to have treated it as an absolutely fundamental axiom of his social thought, a central pillar of the world which if assailed or undermined would keep everything crashing down for no reasons he could really rationally elucidate beyond a nigh-superstitious conviction that his culture was the only culture worth preserving or which he could exist in.
Not only did he express such views in short little jokey poems like On the Creation of Niggers – which is precisely as awful as the title makes it sound – but he also developed longer pieces of satire and political commentary pushing this point, such as Providence in 2000 AD and New-England Fallen, two epics bemoaning the destruction of New England’s Anglocentric cultural heritage at the hands of waves of immigrants.
Combining ugly xenophobia with technical incompetence, in New-England Fallen, Lovecraft straight-facedly tries to rhyme “son” with “moon”, and “view’d” with “blood”, and I have absolutely no idea which dialect or accent on this planet would allow those two rhymes to work. The poem is also notable for being stuffed to the gills with a rose-tinted, idealised nostalgia for an ethnically homogeneous past which never truly was. Once again, Lovecraft’s adamant supporting of rationalism and the truth above all else, and disdain for superstition and sentimental demagoguery makes an exception for the sake of supporting Anglo-American supremacy here. (Joshi points out that Lovecraft was being especially hypocritical here, since he tries to frame his bigotry in a Christian context which by this point in his life he had adamantly rejected.) Providence in 2000 AD actually got published in March 1912 in the local Evening Bulletin, which I suppose is a reminder that although Lovecraft’s views were not universally held in his own time, sadly they were not unique to him either.
Another strand from this era consists of poems about the literary life itself. This includes pieces which essentially amount to fan mail in verse (like To Mr. Terhune, On His Historical Fiction, an exercise in taking two sentences of praise and spinning it out into 50 lines of poetry). More interesting by far, at least when it came to the trajectory of Lovecraft’s career, are the poems written as literary diss tracks in the letters pages of the Argosy, the first American pulp fiction periodical. By this point, Lovecraft had become a regular letter-writer to the various pulp magazines of the era, and in 1913 he jumped into a snail mail flame war in the Argosy’s pages concerning the merits (or lack thereof) of the melodramatic romantic fiction of Fred Jackson.
In this conflict, which would extend into the next year, Lovecraft and his allies would object not merely to the extensive amount of space the Argosy was giving to Jackson’s works (which was, admittedly, far more space than they’d given to other authors), but also derided the stories as being cheap, disposable, sentimental trash; Lovecraft would acknowledge that this was exactly the sort of trash some readers wanted to read, but felt it was a bit much to devote over half the magazine to it. To give you an idea of the material under dispute, Joshi suggests that Jackson’s writing wouldn’t be out of place in a Harlequin romance. (The text Joshi chooses to quote from Jackson’s stories is also decidedly rapey, in that particular “We’re going to frame this as rape that ends up being enjoyable so the heroine can end up falling for the hero’s studliness without doing anything so improper as actually consenting to sex” sort of way that particular corners of the romance world specialised in at that time and which sometimes still crops up today.)
Lovecraft began his barbs in conventional prose, proving eloquent if snobbish. (And worse than snobbish – he stoops at one point to saying that “Into the breasts of his [Jackson’s] characters, and appearing to dominate them to the exclusion of reason, he places the delicate passions and emotions proper to negroes or anthropoid apes.”) Following the publication of Lovecraft’s complaint, one of Jackson’s defenders, John Russell, responded with a little poetic ditty; Lovecraft responded in kind, and soon volleys were being fired off in verse form from both sides. The end result (including Lovecraft pieces like the Ad Criticos cycle and The End of the Jackson War) is reminiscent of an Edwardian rap battle, Lovecraft inflicting and receiving such devastatingly sick burns that it is a surprise the relevant issues of the Argosy didn’t spontaneously combust.
(Notable in these poems is Lovecraft’s use of “shew” as a variant spelling of “show”, a usage which was archaic at the time and which some of his opponents upbraided on. Use of “shew” was one of Lovecraft’s habits which, whilst he didn’t adhere to it absolutely consistently, he seems to have followed more often than not; indeed, one of the best ways of quickly discerning whether you are dealing with one of S.T. Joshi’s corrected texts of Lovecraft’s stories is that he lets “shew” remain as “shew”, whereas Derleth and other tamperers tended to switch it to “show”.)
It would be through laying down such fearsome versified smack talk that brought Lovecraft to the attention of Edward F. Daas, then the Official Editor of the United Amateur Press Association (UAPA), who would promptly invite Lovecraft to join the Association. (He extended the same invitation to John Russell, who as well as being responsible for the shift of the debate to poetry was also the most the most eloquent of Lovecraft’s opponents; a curious respect seems to have developed between Russell and Lovecraft, perhaps because by the end of the flamewar they regarded each other as intellectual equals on a battlefield otherwise devoid of such.) Lovecraft took up the invitation in April 1914, and as a result he became aware of the organised hobby community surrounding amateur journalism.
The term “amateur journalism” should be understood as the amateur production of journals of various sorts, not the amateur practice of journalistic news reporting. This was a hobby which had boomed in the late 19th Century and was still chugging along come 1914; Lovecraft was not alone in having made home-made periodicals as a child even within his own neighbourhood, and nationwide there were scattered numerous examples of what the UAPA’s rival, the National Amateur Press Association (NAPA) liked to describe as “the small boy with a printing press”. (Doubtless you could also track down a small girl with a printing press if you made the effort.) These small folk enjoyed making their little periodicals enough that in adulthood they would continue this hobby, providing a forum for amateur publication of contributor’s works.
Amateur Press Associations, or APAs, were organised communities of amateur journalists, who would both send their own homemade publications to each other and submit articles to be published in the official house journal of the APA. Although APAs are rather redundant these days thanks to the Internet lending a publishing platform to anyone who can sign up for a WordPress account – some still survive, but so far as I can make out more or less all the surviving ones were well-established institutions of the pre-Internet age – they were a big deal in the development both of genre fandom and amateur writing in general back in the day. In fact, Lovecraft’s experiences in the UAPA and other associations would become a key but often-overlooked aspect of his legacy in fandom.
It’s worth taking a tangent here to explore how Lovecraft’s amateur press expertise later transmitted itself throughout the nascent science fiction and fantasy fandom. Late in Lovecraft’s life, one of Lovecraft’s numerous correspondents would be fan community lynchpin Don Wollheim, who would learn about the APA format from Lovecraft; this prompted Don to form the Fantasy Amateur Press Association in 1937, the first of what would prove to be many APAs within fandom.
Don’s bright idea seems to have been to give the FAPA a specific focus on fantasy – previous APAs like the UAPA and NAPA were more generalist in nature, which resulted in occasional disputes as to what subjects were and were not appropriate for circulation. Taking on a specific area of interest helped give the fandom APAs a degree of focus which the UAPA seems to have lacked. Subject-specific APAs, whilst not immune to the bickering and internal politics that sometimes blighted the generalist APAs, at the very least meant that their members all had a general interest in the subject the APA was focused on, which helped offer an answer to the ever-present question of “What shall I write about?” and made the APAs useful venues for the development of communities of like-minded hobbyists and fans.
These days, of course, the Internet is simply a superior platform to APAs in almost every significant respect. If you want discussion, Facebook groups and web forums are simply faster, more efficient, and allow you to participate as much as you like without having to worry about printing costs. If you want to self-publish, there’s innumerable platforms for doing so online or helping you produce print-on-demand hard copies of your super-niche erotic dragon fanfic (or whatever it is you write).
Before the Internet, though, APAs would make important contributions to the development of the hobbies they focused on. For instance, very soon after Dungeons & Dragons was originally published Lee Gold would begin Alarums & Excursions, a roleplaying game-themed APA which played a crucial role in growing the early RPG fandom (and is still published today). In 1973, a couple of years after August Derleth’s death ended his heavy-handed attempts to dominate the Lovecraftian field, the Esoteric Order of Dagon APA was established to provide an amateur press outlet for Lovecraft studies, an endeavour which S.T. Joshi has kept ticking over even to the present day. So it’s rather interesting how, by pushing the APA idea and transmitting it to the early SF/fantasy fandom, Lovecraft ended up sowing the seeds of his own post-Derleth critical reappraisal.
Lovecraft came into amateur journalism shortly before a boom in the quality and quantity of the material produced took place, and it does seem that this in part came about because of his own energetic efforts to get the UAPA to focus on producing work of literary merit instead of obsessing over unproductive bickering and back-patting or turning the group into a mere social club. He was also walking into a rather tangled political scene; as well as a certain rivalry between the NAPA and the UAPA, the UAPA itself had in fact split into two different factions in 1912 due to a hotly contested presidential election, which left both Helene E. Hoffman and Harry Shepherd with credible-sounding claims to be the winners. The UAPA directors would side with Shepherd, and Hoffman’s supporters withdrew to form their own association. (For clarity I will refer to them as the Hoffman-UAPA and Shepherd-UAPA for clarity.)
Lovecraft had joined the Hoffman-UAPA, as opposed to the Shepherd-UAPA, and was enough of a loyalist to his faction that in his early accounts of the dispute not only does he insist that Hoffman was the legitimate winner of the 1912 election, but the way he tells it it makes it sound like it was the Shepherd-UAPA who left to form their own club rather than the reverse. Despite being the de jure legitimate grouping, the Shepherd-UAPA was the smaller organisation at this time, its members largely concentrated around Seattle and its activity in severe decline by 1917, though by late 1919 it had mustered a slight revival. (In theory it actually outlasted the Hoffman-UAPA, which disintegrated due to its members simply losing interest in keeping it going in 1926, but though the Shepherd-UAPA kept ticking along until 1939 in practice actual activity on the part of its members had almost completely dried up well before then.)
Lovecraft was dedicated enough to the idea of writing as a thing ladies and gentlemen of leisure dabbled in for fun rather than filthy money that the amateur press was a natural home for him, and he quickly launched himself into promoting his own agenda, issuing the essay A Task For Amateur Journalists exhorting his fellow UAPA contributors to strive to use proper English and disavow slang, variant spellings, and dialect for reasons mostly boiling down to linguistic snobbery.
He clearly had supporters, though, because by November he was installed as Chairman of the UAPA Department of Public Criticism. This was a post dedicated to offering critique of the various works published by UAPA members; a parallel Department of Private Criticism allowed members to submit unpublished works for comment before they risked unleashing such pieces on a wider audience. Lovecraft dutifully started issuing columns reviewing pieces that had appeared in the amateur journals of late, making the occasional gripe here and there (such as complaining about someone’s perfectly reasonable attempt to rhyme “howl” and “towel”) but otherwise generally focusing on the positive when speaking of others’ works…
…or at least, that’s what he did at first. Having gained some confidence, by the end of his first term of office in the post he was doling out high praise with one hand and thunderous condemnation of both style and subject matter with the other. His willingness to dismiss a work simply because it offended his political sensibilities, in particular, should shut up anyone who cries about people casting aside Lovecraft because of his racism; they are, after all, exercising the same discretion in taste that he personally did along different political lines. This unreasonableness was not just confined to politics, though; he considered the 18th Century mode of expression he loved to be objectively superior, he considered contractions like “can’t” and “don’t” to be excessively informal and common, and in one especially ridiculous incident he slammed William Dowdell’s Cleveland Sun amateur journal for the crime of, get this, including a sports page. Lovecraft sniffily declared that “we cannot but censure Mr. Dowdell’s introduction of the ringside or ballfield spirit into an Association purporting to promote culture and lettered skill”; this aversion rings discordantly with his 1936 obituary for Robert E. Howard, in which he was able to say a few nice somethings about Howard’s boxing stories.
Even at the same time as he was getting into amateur journalism, Lovecraft had found a new venue to air his science writing to a wide audience again, beginning an astronomy column for the Providence Evening News. This was essentially a somewhat more detailed take on his earlier newspaper astrology columns, with some quite engaging explanations of the then-current understanding of cosmology, the history of science, and the mythology behind the names of celestial features which acquit Lovecraft’s skills as a popular science writer nicely (though his tendency to throw in snippets of classical poetry about the heavens – and, indeed, his own poems – was a bit self-indulgent).
He would also start feuds here; the closing months of 1914 would see a hilarious exchange between astrologer J.F. Hartmann and Lovecraft in the letters page of the Evening News, initiated by Lovecraft objecting to Hartmann’s wild claims about the supremacy of astrology over free will and repetition of spurious astrological predictions about the course of World War I. Lovecraft’s first salvo sees him pointing out that astrology’s bolder pseudoscientific claims have largely been demolished, notes John Swift’s takedowns of the astrologers of his time, and pointing out how all the oracular pronouncements of astrology are so vague that you can interpret them to fit any event after the fact.
Hartmann responded with a mass of false analogies and outright rudeness; for instance, in response to Lovecraft citing the Society for Christian Knowledge’s debunking of astrological almanacs in 1827, rather than looking up the substance of the Society’s objections and addressing them Hartmann goes off on a rant about how “There is no such thing as Christian knowledge or Christian science. But there is Christian faith, Christian bigotry and Christian persecution.” Lovecraft responded by having a bit of fun with it, offering a spirited attack on astrology (S.T. Joshi considers it intemperate, but I don’t read it that way) under his own name and taking the John Swift route by offering a letter from “Isaac Bickerstaffe, Jr.” presenting the pro-astrology position in a totally absurd light. (“Isaac Bickerstaffe” was the name of a made-up astrologer John Swift used to pen satires of a similar form back in the day.) Hartmann responded by ignoring Lovecraft’s arguments entirely and submitting a blunt statement of what he considers to be the essential principles of astrology. Following more trolling from Lovecraft, Hartmann eventually responded with a heap of pseudoscience and bad etymology easily refuted by Lovecraft, and the flamewar petered out at the end of the year.
Meanwhile, Lovecraft’s poetic efforts continued. Towards the end of the year some new themes started working their way into Lovecraft’s poetry. Regner Lodbrog’s Epicedium was an English translation of a Latin translation of a runic poem about Viking raiding and adventure, which is excitingly violent enough in its own way to make Lovecraft’s future friendship with Robert E. Howard make a certain amount of sense despite the major differences in temperament between the two. Connected to this one is The Teuton’s Battle-Song, a paen to the glories of war whose accompanying author’s note made it clear that Lovecraft was of the school that considered Christianity to be an alien influence worn only “lightly” by the peoples of Europe, whose prowess in war could be explained by their descent from mighty Odin-worshippers of old and which should be called on now for the sake of the World War (in which Lovecraft, naturally, backed Britain).
The Battle-Song is largely forgotten, but perhaps it shouldn’t be, because it’s a very early expression of a stubbornly persistent and deeply problematic sentiment. Lovecraft’s war propaganda mythology of the Aryan nations tragically fighting each other when they should be fighting the real racially inferior enemies of civilisation, and in particular the way it tries to hark back to pre-Christian paganism for the sake of evoking an ethos more welcoming of violence and bloodshed, is a strange pre-fascist example of a particular subgenre in proto-fascist, fascist and neo-fascist propaganda, carried through to the enthusiastic use by the SS of runic devices in their iconography and in the blending of neopaganism and neofascism in a range of subcultures.
This hasn’t just been restricted to overtly white supremacist groups; some practitioners of Nrose-styled neopaganism have taken an explicitly racialist take on their religion (to the dismay of other practitioners), and these ideas even filter out through the work of the dodgier characters in musical subgenres ranging from black metal to neofolk to martial industrial. To illustrate just how pervasive this particular theme has been over the years, Boyd Rice of NON’s martial industrial anthem Total War gets across pretty much the exact same central point as The Teuton’s Battle-Song in rather similar terms – namely, that Christianity is for wimps and suckers, so in Rice’s words it’s time to “Throw out Christ and bring back Thor” and be merciless in the prosecution of warfare.
What is particularly notable about this is that Lovecraft seems to be tapping into the same sort of ideas which had been played with by the völkisch movements in Germany from the 19th Century onwards, which had reached a peak shortly before the outbreak of World War I and would go on to be a major influence on Nazi ideology. This may, of course, be deliberate; we know that Lovecraft at this time bought into the idea of Aryan superiority (or Nordic superiority, or Teutonic superiority – he wasn’t consistent on his nomenclature there), so it is entirely possible that he had come across völkisch ideas and was trying to come up with an Anglo-völkisch counterpoint to the German’s own nationalist romanticism. But at the same time, the völkisch movements played into precisely the sort of sentimentalised romanticism that Lovecraft claimed to strongly dislike (though we know from works like New-England Fallen that he was willing to grab onto it for propaganda purposes), and I am not aware of Lovecraft referring to it elsewhere in his work.
In terms of Lovecraft’s own account of the motives behind The Teuton’s Battle-Song, he directly states that he wrote it as a rebuke to pacifism. Indeed, much aggressive, sabre-rattling war poetry from Lovecraft would be forthcoming over the course of World War I, even before the Lusitania sinking stirred up American resentment against the Germans, so the piece would mark the emergence of a new strand in Lovecraft’s writing. Another pet theme emerging at around the same time occurs in The Power of Wine, which offers a satirical argument for temperance; as an ideological teetotaller Lovecraft would be a hardline cheerleader for Prohibition for years to come, though by the 1930s he would have come around to the idea that Prohibition simply wasn’t feasible to actually enforce.
By spring of 1915 Lovecraft would be juggling his astronomy articles (including the brief series Mysteries of the Heavens Revealed By Astronomy, a multi-part introduction to the basics of astronomy penned for the Asheville Gazette-News) on the one hand and his amateur journalism writing on the other, and on top of that getting stuck into the internal politics of the amateur journalism world. As well as endorsing Leo Fritter for president on the UAPA and lamenting the failure of the UAPA to find some way to bring the breakaway (by his reckoning) Shepherd-UAPA back into the fold, Lovecraft wrote several times on his opposition to the oft-raised idea of consolidation with the NAPA. In Lovecraft’s view, the NAPA took the whole “amateur” thing too far, in that whilst it included some worthwhile individual contributors (including Samuel Loveman, who would be one of Lovecraft’s closest friends in future years), on an organisational level it had too many people who were there just to socialise or play politics or turf out trite “kittenish” ephemera rather than actually honing their craft and aiming for a high standard. Lovecraft advocated remaining firmly separate from the NAPA, so that the UAPA would be able to distinguish itself by the serious literary aims of its membership.
It was at around this time that Lovecraft put out the first issue of his own amateur journal, The Conservative, whose title adeptly summed up both his literary tastes (classical modes and heroic stanzas aplenty please, none of this modern rubbish) and his social and political stance. The first issue included The Crime of the Century, in which Lovecraft expressed the fear that Aryan nations would exhaust themselves in World War I to the detriment of a world which needed strong Aryan hands on the steering wheel.
Lest we see the tired old “he was merely a man of his times” argument rolled out, Joshi notes that several contemporaries of Lovecraft’s – “men of their times” just as he was – would issue sharp rebukes of Lovecraft’s extreme bigotry as expressed in The Conservative. In responding to one of his critics, Charles Isaacson, Lovecraft would not only unleash the full force of his antisemitism but also declare that the KKK were heroes all and entirely justified in, for instance, obstructing black people from voting because in Lovecraft’s view the people so obstructed didn’t deserve the ballot. One suspects that if he were around today Lovecraft, with his pro-Confederacy, anti-US independence, pro-aristocracy views and tendency to rabbit on about them at great length, would have been a natural fit for the maddeningly pretentious “Dark Enlightenment” movement of online alt-right anti-democratic bloggers.
Still, this all seemed to be stuff which at least some in the UAPA wanted to hear – or perhaps Lovecraft’s obvious enthusiasm for giving his fellow amateurs all the help they desired in honing their craft won people over – because Lovecraft would find himself elected as First Vice-President of the organisation for the 1915-1916 term, with President Leo Fritter retaining him as Chairman of the Department of Public Criticism. It may have helped that, lacking other employment, Lovecraft was simply able to direct more energies than to UAPA business than most other adult members; it’s often the case in amateur clubs of whatever pursuit or persuasion that it’s those who knuckle down and get the chores done that get much of the power. It helped that Lovecraft’s ambition for the United to dedicate itself to high literary standards was shared by several in the organisation, who would soon form a ruling clique counting Lovecraft among its number.
There is, however, a streak of hypocrisy in Lovecraft’s work at this time. In The Isaacsono-Mortoniad – a poetic broadside against Isaacson and Isaacson’s collaborator James Morton that Lovecraft prepared but apparently decided against publishing – he complains of Isaacson’s declarations against racial prejudice having a chilling effect on free speech (in terms reminiscent of the debates happening today in some circles), but in his Department of Public Criticism columns he continued to happily slam people’s pieces for dealing with matters that he considered it improper to write about. His statements in The Conservative concerning aesthetics likewise see him trying to have his cake and eat it; on the one hand he would strongly defend the right of amateur journalists to tackle whatever subject matter they wished, but on the other hand be extremely prescriptive about the form of that expression, pushing classical literary and poetic modes and lambasting modern experiments with fanatical zeal.
Even so, he was willing to set aside these principles to an extent for the sake of his nascent sideline providing revisions and ghostwriting for others, which would in the long run become his main source of income. At about the same time as he was berating Isaacson and others for peace advocacy and deriding “Semitic” spirituality and hyping the classical and Norse gods like a time-shifted Varg Vikernes, he actually took on a bit of revision work on A Prayer For Universal Peace for fellow amateur Robert Selle, which promotes peace in unabashedly Christian terms.
Lovecraft wasn’t just ranting and picking fights – he was also developing a number of important friendships. Towards the end of 1915 we see him writing a poem dedicated to Samuel Loveman (To Samuel Loveman, Esquire, on His Poetry and Drama, Writ in the Elizabethan Style, which boils down to “Please notice me, Loveman-senpai!”) and in 1916 he would start to regularly praise the work of Winifred Jordan (later Jackson), with whom he would later collaborate. Over the next few years Lovecraft would develop friendships with a range of amateurs through correspondence and meetings in person. In his friendship with Samuel Loveman a curious linkage is found; Ambrose Bierce, whose weird fiction Lovecraft deeply appreciated, had been a correspondent of Loveman’s, and indeed one of the last traces we have of Bierce before his mysterious disappearance in 1913 is a letter from him to Loveman, stating prophetically that Bierce has “not the faintest notion when I shall return”. Loveman would not only introduce Lovecraft to the work of a range of horror masters, including Bierce, but also put him in touch with Clark Ashton Smith, one of Lovecraft’s closest friends over the years and a giant of the field of comparable significance to Lovecraft.
Lovecraft’s initial burst of enthusiasm for UAPA business so overshadowed his work that much of his poetry output of 1915 was given over to navel-gazing and in-jokes about UAPA matters – this despite his stance that the amateur press should not just concern itself with writing about the amateur press. However, by 1916 there were hints that weird fiction was exerting its pull on him again. A positive note in the Department of Public Criticism about a spooky story here and there drops such hints, as does the poem To the Late John H. Fowler, Esq.. In the latter, Lovecraft pays tribute to a deceased amateur press contributor who wrote poems on supernatural themes; Lovecraft here expresses doubts about his own ability to compose such tales, suggesting perhaps that part of what had kept him away from producing horror fiction, aside from the distractions offered by his poetry and his racist ideas and his warmongering and his alcohol-bashing, was a simple lack of confidence.
Still, he wouldn’t return to prose fiction just yet, perhaps because by now his poetry would occasionally end up being quite effective when he allowed himself to lighten up and have fun with it. For instance, The Dead Bookworm renders in verse an imagined conversation between his peers on hearing of his death, and strikes an interesting balance between a self-deprecating acknowledgement of Lovecraft’s own funny ways and a fairly clear indication of the reasons why he wasn’t much interested in socialising with less literary sorts in the first place, all delivered in a believably conversational tone which shakes the cobwebs, if only for the moment, out of Lovecraft’s poetic rut..
October 1916’s poetry crop would bring, among various tepid pieces on subjects like Inspiration and The Rose of England, another sniff at the weird with the tiny pocket-sized poem The Unknown – clearly not the literary fare Lovecraft felt he should be concentrating on, but powerful in its brevity and the shocking image it conveys. It is especially notable for having been published in The Conservative under the name of Elizabeth Berkeley, a pseudonym used by Winifred Jackson. Evidently, she and Lovecraft had befriended each other by that point well enough to plan a little prank on their readership, since Lovecraft would later explain to Clark Ashton Smith that he and Winifred had plotted to issue work under Berkeley’s name in wildly varying styles, so readers have no idea what to expect when reading a piece under the Berkeley by-line. (He even went so far as to give the poem a bad review in the Department of Public Criticism column.)
The same issue of The Conservative included one of Lovecraft’s most preposterous essays, Old England and the “Hyphen”, in which he seriously argued that it was OK for him to mistrust the motives of German-Americans or Irish-Americans because they retained an identity tied to the interests of a foreign country, but it wasn’t correct of accusing him of doing the same for England because England wasn’t really a foreign country. Exemplars of Englishness he cites in the essay include William the Bastard, Duke of Normandy and descendant of Scandinavian pirates, William of Orange, who of course hailed from the Netherlands, and George I, who Lovecraft approvingly cites as an example of a German who had successfully integrated into English culture. (Note: George I spent about a fifth of his reign as King of England back at his old stomping grounds in Hanover.) The essay is a brazen example of Lovecraft abusing or inventing facts to fit his personal biases. In the same issue The Symphonic Ideal would find Lovecraft, with an antisemitic sneer on his face, continue his feud with Charles Isaacson and defend his preference for idyllic pastoral poetry over confronting stark reality and bluntly refused to be drawn from what Isaacson called his “play world” of nostalgia and fantasy. The essay is somewhat ironic considering the hopeless, nihilistic visions which would eventually consume Lovecraft’s play world, the dignified classical gods he adored ending up shackled to the whims of Azathoth and others.
Perhaps Lovecraft’s most important poem of 1916 is The Poe-et’s Nightmare. On the face of it, this is a satirical number in which Lovecraft is poking fun at himself, presenting a framing story (in light verse) of a layabout poet who’s read too much Poe having a bad dream (narrated in heavier verse reminiscent of Poe’s own style) brought on by eating too much cake, and on waking up finding a new appreciation for the waking world and getting a sensible job as a clerk (as Lovecraft must have been occasionally encouraged to do). This framing story, however, would later be disavowed by Lovecraft; much later, when R.H. Barlow was toying with the idea of putting together a volume of his mentor’s poetry, Lovecraft suggested that the framing portion should be dispensed with, leaving only the middle section describing the nightmare itself (entitled Aletheia Phrikodes), since the framing story implies that the nightmare is spurious when in fact it was kind of the whole point of the piece.
This dream narrative, in which the narrator finds himself dissociated from his body and wandering the cosmos as a disembodied spirit, confronted with transcendent and awful truths, prefigures an awful lot of Lovecraft’s subsequent fiction. The device of a character becoming conscious of an entire other dimension of their existence through dream would recur a lot in Lovecraft’s fiction, even in very late pieces like The Dreams In the Witch-House, but the way the narration describes flying about in the universe as a disembodied being of pure thought puts me in mind of Beyond the Wall of Sleep. The allusion to the narrator going to some forbidden grove to seek a forbidden truth reminds me also of a cross-section of stories, with perhaps The Other Gods most closely reminding me of it. And the conclusion, in which some sinister guide mocks the dreamer’s quest and shatters their worldview with hints at awful truths, feels like a dry run for the ending of The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath or the confrontation with Yog-Sothoth in Through the Gates of the Silver Key.
What hits me most of all, though, is the way the framing story seems to put a respectable fig-leaf on Lovecraft’s cosmicism, providing a moral which his readership would approve of and was also consistent with his po-faced stance taken in his guise as “The Conservative” of the titular magazine. (He even gets in a crack at alcohol.) It’s almost as though even in the midst of defending his “play world” Lovecraft felt some insecurity about the subject matter which he secretly kind of wanted to write about, and was making a big show of writing the sort of things that he thought a person like him should be writing instead. Perhaps he was partly motivated by the publication towards the end of the year of The Alchemist in the United Amateur – the UAPA’s main society-wide organ. Lovecraft had in fact submitted the story as part of his UAPA application – new recruits were required to provide some piece of their work to be their “credential” – and it is a little unusual that it took two years or so to get published. Perhaps its emergence gave an extra urgency to Lovecraft’s defence of fantasy, or made a return to prose fiction a more tempting proposition.
A second factor prompting this shift in Lovecraft’s interests may be having more time on his hands. By 1917, the UAPA’s pace of publication was dwindling, with fewer materials being circulated among its members. Thus, much of Lovecraft’s output for the year would see him attending to his own poems and producing less essays, for to my eye it seems that most of his essays at this point were turned out to fill the pages of The Conservative or fulfill his duties in United Amateur. With Lovecraft having established a network of friends turning out material for The Conservative, the necessity of turning out little rants to fill the pages was reduced, and with the UAPA’s activity declining and the United Amateur scaling back to bimonthly publication Lovecraft’s official columns therein emerged less frequently and he had less to talk about in them. Perhaps this may have nudged him to fill the void with new creative writing of his own.
Another motivation may have been his disappointment at being turned away from the Rhode Island National Guard, which he’d attempted to join shortly after the US entered the World War (and before, President Wilson instituted the draft). Based on Lovecraft’s account, it sounds like he actually passed the physical, despite his absolute conviction that he was constitutionally incapable of doing so. However, at this point Lovecraft’s mother Susie got wind of his plan and panicked, prevailing on the family doctor to have a word with the National Guard medics and make it clear that Lovecraft was absolutely unable to serve.
This dynamic of Lovecraft adapting this extremely negative self-image and assessment of his own health whilst his mother reinforced it had been a factor since his post-high school breakdown, and the fact that it seems to have continued for nearly a decade makes it almost seem as though something akin to Munchausen Syndrome By Proxy was going on. Certainly, it is not the only instance of Lovecraft being treated like a delicate baby by Susie; visitors from around this time noted that she and Lillian Clark, Lovecraft’s aunt, kept checking in on Lovecraft to make sure he wasn’t looking overburdened or about to faint, and that Susie would pop up every hour or so with a glass of milk which Lovecraft dutifully drank. It is not clear whether this feedback loop began with Lovecraft affecting a weak and wilting self-image which Susie responded to, or whether Susie kicked the cycle off and Lovecraft responded to it, but perhaps the distinction is academic and it certainly seems useless and unhelpful to assign “blame” in a situation where ultimately both were victims.
I am particularly struck by the way Lovecraft explains his decision to try and enlist in the text cited by Joshi:
Some time ago, impressed by my entire uselessness in the world, I resolved to attempt enlistment despite my almost invalid condition. I argued that if I chose a regiment soon to depart from France; my sheer nervous force, which is not inconsiderable, might sustain me till a bullet or piece of shrapnel could more conclusively & effectively dispose of me.
This seems like Lovecraft was talking about a sort of suicide-by-volunteering, in a “ha ha, only serious” kind of a way. Feeling useless again, witnessing his peers sail off for jolly adventures in Europe on the government’s dime, and with his mother humiliatingly reiterating her low conception of him, I do wonder whether this sense of alienation, of invalidity and deformity, and of having no place in the modern era may have helped provide the seed of his return to fiction.
This return was The Tomb, in which Lovecraft came back to The Alchemist’s theme of some blight arising from family history. With narrator Jervas Dudley’s fascination with his distant ancestors, the Hydes, as well as their burnt-out manor house and the familial tomb the story is named for, Lovecraft trod similar but not identical ground to his later The Case of Charles Dexter Ward. (Lovecraft claimed that the inspiration for the story arose from strolling around a local graveyard with his aunt Lillian Clark and noting a grave from 1711, and being fixated with a desire to converse with the occupant, a motive which is at the heart of Ward.)
The narrative cuts a careful course between being an account of Dudley’s nocturnal adventures and hinted-at mastery of necromancy and talking to the dead on the one hand, and on the other an inside look at the development of a startling obsession and associated delusions. Jervas would be the first character in Lovecraft’s extant fiction to end up confined in a mental hospital, but he wouldn’t be the last. It also, to my eyes, has a number of autobiographical hallmarks. Jervas essentially has the same feeling of being born too late that Lovecraft largely had, and the morbidity with which it is expressed feels like Lovecraft riffing on his own alienation from the world arising from the negative self-image that Susie had been reinforcing. Moreover, it’s notable that the undoing of Jervas arises in part from the snooping of his parents, which feels like it may be a swipe at Susie’s overprotectiveness.
In addition to that, the detail of Dudley making a little bower for himself to watch the tomb from feels somewhat reminiscent of Lovecraft’s account of his childhood construction of an altar in the woods to pagan gods, and feeling like had actually witnessed nymphs and satires summoned by his worship (an incident he alludes to happening in Dudley’s own past, in fact). The way witnesses describe Dudley simply sleeping in the bower when he himself believes he had been entering the tomb and interacting with its inhabitants feels like a riff on Lovecraft’s own opinion that he had not, in fact, seen supernatural entities observing him in the woods but had simply persuaded himself that he had through force of mind; thus, the object of worship here shifts from millennia-old gods to centuries-old ancestors, and the result of that worship is visionary experiences others are not privileged to and, it seems from the outcome of the story, have a certain reality to them which suggests that the story is no mere account of a delusion but the result of something genuinely supernatural happening..
It’s interesting that, even as he was dipping his toe back into fiction, Lovecraft hadn’t quite given up on his poetry, slipping one of them into to the text – specifically Gaudemas, some pointless doggerel masquerading as a drinking song but which, as Rudimentary Peni demonstrated on their rendition of it on the Cacophany album, is tricky and tedious to actually sing. I almost wonder whether Lovecraft was so lacking in confidence he felt compelled to include the poem in order to include something of merit in the story – despite the fact that actually, the story is a perfectly good one and would flow a little better without the poem. In the next article in this series, I will start in on reviewing the new wave of fiction that The Tomb unleashed.