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.
Having covered much of Lovecraft’s work from the early 1930s, we’ve now come to the point when he put the final touches on Supernatural Horror In Literature, so this seems to be the best time to take a good look at it. It’s easily the most widely reprinted of Lovecraft’s essays, and to be honest it genuinely deserves to be because it’s far and away the best of his nonfiction writing and represents a useful early survey of the genre as it had developed up to the time Lovecraft wrote it. He had begun it way back in 1925 during his New York stint, but revised it and added new discoveries of his when the prospect of it being republished came up; several versions available, including the one in the second volume of the Collected Essays series, helpfully indicate where the new insertions are.
As the title suggests, the essay is about the literary merit of the weird tale. Lovecraft suggests that only a few readers will really appreciate such material, because most people are too bound up in the daily routine to get much out of literature that does not deal with real life and won’t be especially sensitive to transcendental themes. This may have been accurate enough at the time of writing – and goodness knows Lovecraft was in a better position than many to appreciate how limited the audience for Weird Tales and other such outlets for supernatural horror was.
At the same time, I think Lovecraft may have been greatly surprised to see how widely his stories alone had been read, let alone the rampant popularity of writers working in the fantasy and horror traditions these days. The long-running tendency of fandom to assume that its members constitute an elite whose tastes are more refined and intelligent than the common run of humanity – spoofed by Philip K. Dick in stories like The Hood Maker – clearly has early roots, and I can’t help but think that Lovecraft is indulging in it somewhat here.
Lovecraft also advances an argument that the weird tale is a sort of dark mirror of religion, both arising from primal, instinctual responses to the unknown, with religion having grown to focus mostly on the benign aspects of the unknown and the weird tale on the malign. This I think I can see a bit more substance to, especially if you see horror writing as occupying the sort of cultural niche that spooky folklore legends would have filled back in the day. Lovecraft suggests that early texts on ceremonial magic represent an early instance of this branching, from a time when the malevolent had more real estate on religious turf.
Where Lovecraft’s thoughts on the philosophy of the weird tale go off the rails is when he starts working in his odd racial theories. He once again airs the ridiculous Margaret Murray Witch-Cult In Western Europe theory that a hidden race of dark-skinned dwarves surviving to a surprisingly late period of time provided the basis of much European folklore about witches, and he presents the absurd notion that so-called “Nordics” produce the most atmospherically intense horror tales because “Latin” sorts have too much intrinsic rationality to go really hog-wild with the imagination. When rereading I held my breath a bit when Lovecraft got onto the subject of Jewish writing, but though he remains racially essentialist concerning the temperament of Jewish authors for once he has nothing but nice things to say about them, being quite taken with Ansky’s The Dybbuk.
Aside from Lovecraft’s sometimes shaky thoughts on weird tales in general, the bulk of the essay – and the bit most readers will get most value from – is essentially an epic-scale version of one of his Bureau of Critics articles, save that instead of nitpicking the mostly forgettable poetry of mostly forgotten amateur poets Lovecraft is taking us on a whistle-stop tour of the entire horror subgenre, with particular attention paid to both significant works and works which Lovecraft thinks have been unfairly overlooked.
Beginning in the gothic period, I am inclined to agree with Lovecraft’s assessment that The Castle of Otranto was more significant for the later works it inspired than for any of its own intrinsic qualities; it’s a deeply silly novel, to the point where I do wonder whether Walpole intended it as a joke. Lovecraft has particular praise for The Monk for not copping out with a mundane explanation for events, which hits on one interesting point – many of the original gothic novels put a lot of effort into creating the impression of the supernatural, only to resort to contrived Scooby-Doo nonsense in explaining them away, rather ruining the fun. In discussing the Orientalist strand in Gothic fiction, as exemplified by Vathek, Lovecraft succumbs to his childhood Orientalism himself, offering a strand of qualities he attributes to the “Saracen spirit” – “haughty luxury, sly disillusion, bland cruelty, urbane treachery, and shadowy spectral horror” – none of which I feel have ever been too hard to find in the West.
There is an extensive section on Poe, as you would expect from Lovecraft’s admiration for him. Towards the start of this section Lovecraft makes a point which I find quite telling:
Poe, on the other hand, perceived the essential impersonality of the real artist; and knew that the function of creative fiction is merely to express and interpret events and sensations as they are, regardless of how they tend or what they prove – good or evil, attractive or repulsive, stimulating or depressing – with the author always acting as a vivid and detached chronicler rather than as a teacher, sympathiser, or vendor of opinion.
I have my doubts as to whether this pose is really possible to maintain in a sustained fashion – all too often what we think of as “detached objectivity” is really succumbing to our favourite and most comfortable prejudices, for one thing – but I think this is why I find Lovecraft more reclaimable than Howard: Howard’s sympathies and opinions are a little too prominent in and important to his fiction, whilst with many of Lovecraft’s stories (at least the better ones) you can still appreciate the story being presented even if you personally don’t agree with the outlook of the narrator.
Lovecraft’s interpretation of Poe is idiosyncratic but often insightful. For instance, in addressing Poe’s Man of the Crowd Lovecraft talks as though he has detected a whiff of the supernatural about the story that others have missed, and his interpretation of The Fall of the House of Usher – that the Usher siblings and the house share a common soul – has been spoken of by Poe scholars as being a genuinely novel contribution to its interpretation. (Have you ever read Usher? It’s intensely enigmatic and Lovecraft’s headcanon fits the text beautifully.) Lovecraft also speaks mysteriously of a certain Frenchman who could only read Poe in Baudelaire’s translation as though this were a well-known anecdote, though no source for this can be found. (This is not the only unusual thing about the essay: Lovecraft expresses preference for earlier version of MacDonald’s Lilith – but nobody, to anyone’s knowledge, has read that.)
After Poe, Lovecraft moves through the post-Poe authors and bring things to the present. (Well, his present. A version of the essay which extended to our present would in itself be a supernatural horror – one I like to think would be full of outraged Lovecraftian put-downs directed at August Derleth or something). Here is where we start getting more revisions in the later versions of the essay – prior to these sections the revisions mostly consist of minor corrections and additions here and there, in terms of more recent authors Lovecraft starts working in new sections on work that he had discovered in the preceding decade.
The most substantial addition is a discussion of William Hope Hodgson, who Lovecraft only discovered in 1934 – rather incredibly, considering how Hodgson’s The House On the Borderland was such an excellent proto-Lovecraftian work. Lovecraft gives extensive thoughts on The Night Land, and his distaste for some aspects of the novel echo my own (though I disagree that its merits overcome them). At the same time, he dismisses most of the stories about Carnacki the Ghost-Finder because he dislikes the “infallible occult detective” trope which had already become a bit of a regular thing in horror writing – as well as Carnacki, you had examples like Algernon Blackwood’s John Silence.
It is fairly to see why the “infallible” part of the character type creates difficulties in a horror context – after all, if you can count on a character to always know the right thing to do in a situation or always puzzle out the clues in time to save the day, any situation involving them is going to lose tension. Lovecraft also dislikes the character type because it tends to bring with it a baggage of pseudo-scientific quasi-professional occult jargon – a particular set of ideas about what the occult and magic are and how they work – with the result that the stories would become weighed down with nerdy wiki-tickling conversations about all that stuff rather than getting on with actually advancing the narrative and establishing and maintaining atmosphere.
I think Lovecraft could be said in some respects to be slightly guilty of this himself – the discussion of the Elder Thing civilisation does make some sections of At the Mountains of Madness a bit of a slog – but I think he’s better at avoiding it than he’s given credit for, with his citations of tomes like the Necronomicon delivering more in allusion than they do a geeky description of a magic system or exactly how his pantheon fits together. His point couldn’t be better illustrated by August Derleth’s miserably bad pastiches, almost all of which are weighed down by the ballast of an extensive plot dump about Derleth’s personal headcanon about the Mythos that takes up way too much space and covers way too many points of utter irrelevance to the story at hand in way too much detail. Based on his comments here, I think Lovecraft would have certainly not been a fan of Derleth’s occult detective Laban Shrewsbury (or Seneca Lapham from The Lurker At the Threshold, who is basically a Laban Shrewsbury reskin), let alone Brian Lumley’s Titus Crow stuff.
Lovecraft rounds off the essay with extended looks at his favourite modern masters of the format. Arthur Machen, Lord Dunsany, and M.R. James are all sound picks, though I sneakily think Lovecraft overrates Algernon Blackwood a bit. (Admittedly, Lovecraft does concede that Blackwood’s output is uneven.) Notable by not being cited as a modern master of the genre, despite the essay including approving writeups of his best work, is Robert Chambers of The King In Yellow fame. Although Chambers’ The Yellow Sign was actually Lovecraft’s favourite horror story, after The King In Yellow Chambers’ career ended up prioritising quantity over quality and went in an unashamedly populist direction.
By the time Lovecraft was writing the essay Chambers’ early horror material was mostly forgotten, to the point where The King In Yellow had actually become something of a rarity, and Lovecraft can legitimately claim credit for, through this essay, encouraging its rediscovery. In fact, Lovecraft was personally surprised to discover such great horror coming from Chambers’ pen, because along with everyone else in his day he mostly associated Chambers’ name with the formulaic romance novels he churned out – more or less none of which are especially well-remembered today, or indeed remembered at all. In the essay, Lovecraft says of Chambers that “One cannot help regretting that he did not further develop a vein in which he could so easily have become a recognised master”; in his letters to Clark Ashton Smith he was harsher, saying “Chambers is like Rupert Hughes and a few other fallen Titans – equipped with the right brains and education but wholly out of the habit of using them.”
Turning away from theory to practice, Till A’ the Seas saw Lovecraft tightening up a story penned by Barlow; it’s a dying Earth story telling the tale of the death of the last human, preceded by a “future history” recounting the drying-out of the planet through global warming and the various social upheavals that happened as a result of it. That history section seems to me to be quite reminiscent of the history of the Elder Things recounted in At the Mountains of Madness, at least in terms of the way it encapsulates great sweeps of history in a comparatively short space, so I am inclined to think that this is where Lovecraft lent the most help.
Lovecraft’s next solo story was The Shadow Out of Time, the last of his stories focused on profiling an alien culture and its history. In fact, in several respects it offers a replay of aspects of At the Mountains of Madness, especially when it comes to the climax involving the protagonist running away from a creature which has made a home underneath the lost city of the high alien culture the story is working from. Lovecraft does at least offer something new this time around in that the story posits a particular fantastic technology – time travel accomplished by swapping bodies with someone in a different time and place – and then examines what sort of society could result from a culture which discovered that.
The culture in question, the Great Race of Yith, are explicitly described as practicing a sort of “fascistic socialism”, and given that they spend all their time visiting cool places in time and space and reading and writing books about the fun stuff they’ve seen they seem to qualify as the closest Lovecraft came to a utopia, especially since thanks to their mastery of time travel they can escape the implications of the second law of thermodynamics in a manner not available to anyone limited to linear progress through time.
An interesting aspect of the Great Race which rather undercuts a lot of Lovecraft’s ideas about race – so much so that I wouldn’t be entirely surprised if the point hadn’t actually occurred to him – is that the Great Race is a “race” in which you are a member not by dint of bloodline or genetics but by culture and upbringing; a member of the Great Race born in the cone-shaped bodies they utilised in the prehistoric era is just as much a fully-accepted Yithian as one who is born to the cockroach bodies they possess in the time after humanity. (In more standard Lovecraft handling of race he uses the term “blackfellow” to denote aboriginal Australians, though as far as I can tell that was actually the accepted term at the time so the most he can be blamed for there is unthinkingly going along with the bigotry at the time, rather than going above and beyond the call of hatred as he so often did in other contexts.)
The time travel stuff obviously gives Lovecraft an opportunity to namedrop and reference his own work and that of his friends a lot; there’s another reference to the cruel empire of Tsan-Chan that arises in humanity’s future, tips of the hat to Clark Ashton Smith and Robert E. Howard’s prehistoric and future settings, a citation of Von Junzt’s occult tome Nameless Cults as invented by Howard (perhaps nodding to the fact that this story is a sort of cunning inversion of Howard’s stories of past life regression, in that it involves recovered memories of living in a different body within one’s present subjective lifetime), and there’s even a nod to a prehistoric Arctic realm overthrown by an Inuit invasion, as in Polaris.
Perhaps the most significant glimpse of another part of the timeline, though, comes in the form of allusions to a dark world of the future where the Sun has gone out, the roaches which have replaced humanity die out, and various spider-things take over and it’s all a bit like a subterranean take on Hodgson’s Night Land. The most significant bit about this future story is that in scanning the future history of Earth to pick a race of entities to collectively quantum leap into once their prehistoric-era colony becomes unviable, the Great Race eventually choose to reside in the roaches. The implication of this is that, even though the roaches eventually get overthrown by the spiders, they still represent a better deal for the Yithians than occupying humanity would. Not only are our accomplishments too puny and insignificant to impress the Yithians, but we don’t even have the potential to do much better even if they took us over; this, perhaps, finds Lovecraft passing his most vastly pessimistic judgement on the human race, finding that not only are we insignificant on a cosmic scale, but we aren’t even the most interesting thing about our own planet.
In 1935 Lovecraft would allude in the pages of the amateur journals to Doorways to Poetry, a sort of beginner’s guide to the appreciation of poetry which he had been co-writing with Maurice Moe since 1928; sadly, the manuscript is lost, but the fact that Lovecraft was trying to encourage the National to issue it as official guidance to new contributors suggests that by 1935 it may have been almost ready – and long enough that Moe and Lovecraft balked at issuing it at their own expense.
Next up we have a run of revisions and collaborations. Collapsing Cosmoses is another goof-off with Barlow, the duo writing alternate sections of a brief, fragmentary spoof of the pulpiest and silliest sort of intergalactic SF on the market at the time. It’s funny, but not as funny as what we’re in for next – namely, the magnificent mess of The Challenge From Beyond.
This was a “round robin” story commissioned by Julius Schwartz, editor of Fantasy Magazine, the idea being that each contributor would write a segment of story which would be then left to the next contributor to continue. C.L. Moore sets the scene with random everyman George Campbell finding a mysterious object whilst out camping. Originally, the second part was written by Frank Belknap Long, providing a development Lovecraft privately considered to be quite interesting; however, this was scrapped when Abraham Merritt threw a strop and complained that Long had dragged the story away from the sort of subject matter implied by its title, which seems rather petty when you consider how vague the title is. To appease Merritt, who was quite popular at the time, Schwartz nixed Long’s part 2 and allowed Merritt to write a second part… which actually, beyond projecting our protagonist’s mind out of his body and into the mystery object didn’t develop the idea further at all, making Merritt look like a huge asshole for making a fuss over it.
Then we have Lovecraft’s section, where he sticks his finger down his throat and vomits exposition and backstory all over the place about the centipede-worm-things of Yekub using cross-spacial body-stealing technology as a means of invasion. (He even works in a cameo from the Great Race from The Shadow Out of Time, who of course can do the same body-stealing schtick but across time as well, who apparently foiled the last Yekubian invasion of Earth when they spotted what they were trying and were like “lol, nice try noobs”.) He ends in a classic Lovecraftian moment of horror when Campbell realises he is now in the body of one of the worm things.
Then you have Robert E. Howard stepping in. Presumably, Lovecraft knew Howard would be writing next, and may even have constructed his episode with a view to making it tricky for Howard to just resort to his usual he-man blood-and-thunder heroics. It’s a nice try, but it doesn’t work: Howard has Campbell flip his shit and go on a murder rampage, going as full Conan on the Yekubians as a man’s mind in the body of a worm can do. This naturally left a big mess for Frank Belknap Long to try and bring to a close in a manner vaguely suitable both to the horror and sword and sorcery approaches applied by the previous authors, which actually he manages to do quite cleverly by deciding that from the point of view of the Yekubians Earth is an alien hellhole full of hostile lifeforms, and that the body possessing Campbell’s body becomes overwhelmed by the body’s primal instincts which only extensive socialisation in humans can keep in check whilst Campbell ends up a sort of Overman – or rather, Overworm – back on Yekub by virtue of having a capacity for violence which shocks the Yekubians into obedience. The whole process is kind of an enormous mess, but is worth reading for a laugh just for the tonal whiplash between Lovecraft and Howard’s bits.
The Disinterment is a revision of a Duane W. Rimel short story which feels a bit like a reverse rerun of The Outsider and features various of Lovecraft’s favourite motifs – graveyards and grave-robbing, for one, and for another a story which makes sense only if you assume that the protagonist never looks down at himself. It’s otherwise quite forgettable stuff, with a fairly fundamental flaw early on – namely, that it requires the protagonist to agree to their doctor’s unorthodox treatment plan which, in the manner it’s explained to them, makes no sense and couldn’t possibly work.
The Lovecraft work which in my view resembles post-Lovecraft Mythos pastiches the most – especially those of August Derleth – is The Diary of Alonzo Typer. This was a revision of a story by William Lumley – no relation to Brian Lumley, to my knowledge – who was a correspondent that Lovecraft hadn’t so much befriended as humoured. Lumley, you see, was a bit of a forerunner of occultists like Kenneth Grant in terms of claiming that Cthulhu and other deities written about by Lovecraft and his colleagues were, on some level, real entities that had used the Weird Tales crowd as unwitting channels. Another parallel between Lumley and Grant seems to have been a shared tendency towards tall tales, Lumley having claimed to Lovecraft that he’d attended mysterious rituals in deserted cities and regularly visited a haunted valley near Buffalo, New York to discuss things with a mysterious entity that lurked there and so on. (In other words, the sort of wild claims that makes even keen occultists sit back and go “Hmmm, this kind of sounds like bullshit.”)
This is the one Lovecraft story which comes closest to what I like to think of as the “Derleth Standard Narrative”. This is a story about someone who occupies some spooky old house which turns out to have some sort of familial connection to them, at which point they start getting various eldritch visions, mysterious sounds, and strange mental sensations, read a whole bunch of books, start inadvertently getting dragged into Mythos-y practices and rites and ultimately come to a bad end. Derleth would use his Standard Narrative for an absurd number of Lovecraft pastiches, including a good proportion of the stories he misleadingly claimed as being written by Lovecraft or as being collaborations between him and Lovecraft.
There’s a certain irony in his doing this, because of Lovecraft’s actual work only this one really fits the bill; The Rats In the Walls came close but is differentiated by dint of the protagonist not reading a bunch of Mythos books, and likewise, the lack of a familial connection distinguishes The Dreams In the Witch House from this one. For that matter, even this one is a bit different from the Standard Model because here the protagonist’s occult experiments are consciously undertaken, whereas in Derleth they tended to lapse into performing weird magical ceremonies on an unconscious level. It sort of makes sense as a model for tackling a Lovecraftian story if you are as deep into the “horror concealed in protagonist’s ancestry” strand in Lovecraft’s work as exemplified in Charles Dexter Ward, The Shadow Over Innsmouth, Arthur Jermyn, and of course this story, but that’s an aspect of Lovecraft’s work which at best has dated badly and at worst taps directly into the worst of his racism.
Speaking of bad Lovecraft habits, this story might provide one of the most egregious examples of “killed whilst writing” in Lovecraft’s portfolio, with Alonzo Typer apparently bothering to write that he’s being dragged away to the cellar by giant furry paws whilst he is being dragged away to the cellar by giant furry paws. Or is it that simple? Could the “dragging” not so much be physical so much as a psychic compulsion to perform the terrible acts he has been brought here to do (which would fit in with some hints earlier in the story)? That would make the ending less of an anticlimax, since it would mean Typer did end up doing the ritual passing of the gates (shades of Through the Gates of the SIlver Key!) that he intended and was supposed to be the reason for him being there, whereas otherwise he just gets killed before doing any of that. Then again, that could just be me reaching to try to find a more charitable interpretation of what is undeniably a fairly sloppily-executed ending.
One thing which is notable about the story is that Typer is one of those professional occult investigators full of specific technical knowledge about magic which Lovecraft says in Supernatural Horror In Literature that he isn’t keen on. Of course, unlike, say, Carnacki the Ghost-Finder Typer’s confidence in his occult knowledge is decidedly misplaced, and Lovecraft does try to keep his waffling more on the level of evocative-sounding allusions as opposed to presenting actual theories about how occultism works, but we’re still dealing with a structure that Lovecraft probably wouldn’t have chosen had be been writing this thing from scratch.
Lovecraft’s final story (aside from revisions) was The Haunter of the Dark. This was written more for play than for pay; young Weird Tales fan and budding author Robert Bloch (later of Psycho fame) had become one of Lovecraft’s various correspondents, and as part of writing the Cthulhu Mythos short story The Shambler From the Stars Bloch had included a character based on Lovecraft who suffered a horrible death at the titular creature’s hands. Showing a bit more consideration than the average teenage nerdboy, Bloch had sought Lovecraft’s permission to do this; Lovecraft sent back a mysterious document, signed by Abdul Alhazred, Gespard du Nord, Frederich von Juntz, and the Tcho-Tcho Lama of Leng, declaring the following:
This is to certify that Robert Bloch, Esq., of Milwaukee, Wisconsin, U.S.A. – reincarnation of Meinheer Ludvig Prinn, author of De Vermis Mysteriis – is fully authorised to portray, murder, annihilate, disintegrate, transfigure, metamorphose, or otherwise manhandle the undersigned in the tale entitled The Shambler from the Stars.
Like any halfway-competent Mephistopheles, of course, Lovecraft fully intended to take suitable payment, though; The Haunter of the Dark had him return the favour with interest, for whilst Bloch’s fictionalised Lovecraft is merely attacked and killed by a monster, Lovecraft knew full well that if you really want to savour someone’s destruction, you torture them for a good long while before you finally finish them off.
Lovecraft granted the unnamed narrator of The Shambler the name of Robert Blake, and had him moving into new rooms in Providence – in fact, the room as described in the story was Lovecraft’s own, and the view outside the window is the view Lovecraft enjoyed every day. Looking out over Providence, Blake takes note of a mysterious old church, which he goes to investigate and finds to be derelict; appalling the Italian immigrant residents of the district when he breaks into the church and pokes about. The edifice, you see, has an evil reputation, having been inhabited by a strange cult known as the Church of Starry Wisdom, who performed various vile acts under the influence of an artifact known as the Shining Trapezohedron.
Naturally, Blake’s tampering causes the light-phobic Haunter to manifest and destroy him – eventually, after the Haunter’s influence, subsequent discoveries, and his mounting paranoia bring Blake to the point of total breakdown. Structurally, then, the story is actually a lot like The Diary of Alonzo Typer, you have an occult investigator who looks into a mystery and is eventually destroyed by what he finds after a period of torment, he left behind his diary which he was writing in as he died (it is slightly less risible in this case when you note that the Haunter was flying over a wide span of space to get Blake and that Blake seems to have become psychically dominated by the Haunter to a certain extent by that point), you have references to Aklo lore and documents related to that stuff discovered, and the protagonist is tugged about to investigate by a possibly-external compulsion despite their misgivings. It almost qualifies as self-pastiche, which I guess makes sense given that it’s a sequel to Bloch’s pastiche.
However, the major distinction is that this time Lovecraft wasn’t writing with a clumsy William Lumley first draft as ballast, which allows him to deliver the story with a bit more finesse. An interesting point is that, as with Dreams In the Witch House, some conventional story features like exorcism come into play, though this time the suggestion that these are only accidentally efficacious is much stronger; specifically, the details of the story suggest that merely letting light into the place where the Trapezohedron was held was enough to banish the Haunter in the previous manifestation, so any power attributed to the ritual of exorcism confused correlation with causation.
The story also offers a rare example of Lovecraft writing about an immigrant community in a manner which treats them as decent, ordinary people; yes, they’re quite religious, but the superstitions they exhibit over the course of the story are actually not really that superstitious because they do have a solid basis in fact, with their candlelight vigils being genuinely effective in keeping the Haunter at bay for a time. (Moreover, it’s worth noting that the local community were in fact the victims of the Starry Wisdom’s depredations and were largely responsible for running them out, which explains where they got their inside knowledge on how to fight this stuff.)
The story throws in another allusion to cultic activity going in Maine, which following the references in The Thing On the Doorstep makes me wonder whether Lovecraft was planning to pen a story based in Maine; he never would, but of course Stephen King has plugged that gap exhaustively by this point. Another King connection comes in the fact that Lovecraft is of course writing a story about a horror writer, in keeping with King’s tendency to include authors as protagonists. Blake’s story titles have proven a rich field for exploitation by subsequent Mythos authors; the term “Shaggai” appears here and was later used in early pastiches by Ramsey Campbell, and various hands have been inspired by the title The Burrower Beneath to write The Burrowers Beneath, with Brian Lumley’s take perhaps being the most prominent.
One last point of interest is that here “Old Ones” seems to be being used with yet another different sense – in context, it seems to be invoked as a generic catch-all term for Mi-Go, Elder Things, and pretty much any other alien culture that ruled the Earth before humanity.
Though he largely hung up his spurs as an author of fiction at this point, Lovecraft remained active in fandom and continued to encourage various younger authors in their work. In discussing Lovecraft’s late correspondents Joshi makes a really huge goof in I Am Providence; whilst he correctly notes that James Blish went on to have a very prolific career as a writer, he bluntly asserts that Walter M. Miller Jr. disappeared into oblivion. The only thing that has disappeared to oblivion is accuracy in that statement: Miller was the author of none other than A Canticle for Leibowitz, a major literary science fiction novel with great recognition and esteem in the field. That Joshi cites Canticle in his Icons of Horror and the Supernatural – a book which preceded his expansion and revision of I Am Providence by quite some way – makes this error especially strange.
One instance of Lovecraft lending a helping hand to a beginner is the rather lacklustre In the Walls of Eryx, which essentially consists of Lovecraft’s tightening-up of a short story penned by Kenneth J. Sterling, a local high school student that Lovecraft had befriended. By the standards of the time, it is a stab at proper science fiction – the closest to standard SF of its era Lovecraft would come to dabbling in, in fact – with some thought given to the technology and details of the future but ultimately will come across as a bit dated to modern readers due to its depiction of Venus as being far more hospitable to us than we know know it to be.
In a manner reminiscent of the planetary romance of Leigh Brackett, it posits a colonial exploitation of Venus driven more by corporations than terrestrial governments. Our narrator is part of this process, a colonialist asshole who doesn’t even believe the locals have human-level intelligence and culture, considers them animals and wants them exterminated. Although we’ve seen a lot of that from Lovecraft over the course of this series, in this case given the fate of the narrator it seems that this attitude is meant to be upbraided by the story, with our asshole prospector dying as a result of getting stuck in an invisible maze built by the locals. The story is undermined by the way it waffles on repetitively for far too long once the central crisis is reached, though it is amusing for the fact that the narrator encounters an alien plant, gets drugged by it, and then when he comes down off his high he notices that the time is 4:20. The whole thing is sufficiently reliant on its Twilight Zone-esque twist that it falls into the category of what I think of as “punchline SF” – in that most of the story’s power resides in its punchline, and once you know it there isn’t much rereading value to it.
Lovecraft’s involvement in fandom would, at this time, see him involved in an elder statesman sort of role in a couple of serious disputes. The interesting thing about both of these is that they’re a bit like small-scale pre-Internet versions of controversies familiar to present-day fandom. The first one is chronicled in Correspondence between R.H. Barlow and Wilson Shepherd of Oakman, Alabama, a document drawn up by Lovecraft as a summary of Barlow’s case against Shepherd, and details a dispute of the sort which has plagued fandom since its inception and makes me wish we had Lovecraft around today to go after eBay and Kickstarter frauds, charlatans, and goofs.
The basic situation was that Shepherd had agreed to sell to Barlow a set of what were even then prized, collectable SF and fantasy pulp magazines, but what he actually sent to Barlow didn’t resemble in any respect the material he’d offered to sell and Barlow’s attempts to get a straight answer out of Shepherd were met with evasion, non sequiturs, and nonsensical answers. Lovecraft’s methodical attention to detail results in actually quite a good summary of the case, and he is particularly good at noting disparities in Shepherd’s letters, which makes me think that he might have made a good legal clerk had he thought to seek such a job. Predictably, he does come down on Barlow’s side, though he makes the case so convincingly that it’s hard not to come to the same conclusion.
In fact, Lovecraft’s assessment of the situation is quite damning, and I wonder if Shepherd would have been so keen to issue an edition of History of the Necronomicon through fanzine circles if he’d known Lovecraft had concluded that he was either “mentally defective” or “a very dull, ignorant, and naive (though rattily cunning) person”. Given the details presented, it sounds like for once Lovecraft’s snobbery is fully justified; Shepherd’s tactic as a con artist seems to have been to respond to any and all complaints with a hastily-scribbled response giving no real heed to internal consistency or anything which was said previously in the exchange, working on the principle of getting away with the scam simply by being so amazingly annoying to deal with that people give up in disgust rather than continue to suffer the aggravation of dealing with him. Those burned by recent Kickstarter failures may find this feeling curiously familiar.
Lovecraft’s unexpected eye for legalistic detail may have been honed in part due to him serving as one of the Executive Judges of the NAPA for the 1935-1936 term. In this capacity, he was part of a triumvirate tasked with resolving official disputes and providing guidance on interpretation of the NAPA’s rules. (The fact that the club needed such an official institution in the first place perhaps highlights some of the eruptions of bad feeling the NAPA was prone to.) This found him caught up in the other incident I want to highlight as being relevant to present-day fandom – an affair which would stimulate his last foray into APA politics, and perhaps his most laudable and praiseworthy one.
In several missives, and most prominently in Some Current Motives and Practices, Lovecraft came to the defence of Hyman Bradofsky, then the President of the NAPA. Bradofsky had been the subject of a campaign of smearing and harassment on the part of some NAPA members; Lovecraft recounts how this included a flurry of completely spurious complaints (official and otherwise) about Hyman’s use of his Presidential powers, baseless allegations of procedural impropriety, and the circulation behind Bradofsky’s back of insulting, abusive material. Perhaps the most appalling incident Lovecraft reports involves a story of Bradofsky’s being circulated with nasty commentary added before the original was published and circulated, which means that someone whom Bradofsky had trusted with a manuscript of the story – perhaps even the very editor he submitted it to – must have been complicit in the abuse.
Lovecraft rebukes not only the present campaigners, but also eloquently argues that the NAPA must do some serious examination of its internal culture. This was not, apparently, even the first time such malicious sniping had broken out in the NAPA, though Lovecraft considers it the most extreme and ridiculous to date, and he argues that the NAPA has tolerated such activities for far too long and, in doing so, created an environment where such events are fostered by the very fact they aren’t condemned. Of course, Lovecraft loses some points for overlooking the fact that he himself had stooped to issuing personal attacks in the course of amateur journalism politics when he fired off Medusa: A Portrait in condemnation of Ida Haughton, but to be fair that had been over a decade previous and at least Lovecraft had done some growing up in the intervening time.
One angle Lovecraft does not tackle, here or (according to Joshi) in his correspondence, is the fact that Hyman was Jewish, which given that this was the mid-1930s may have partly or entirely motivated the hate campaign. Maybe Lovecraft was unwilling to acknowledge the role of antisemitism in the controversy, or genuinely believed that it wasn’t a factor. (Without knowing exactly who was responsible for the smear campaign and what was said, it’s hard to be sure, though given the times and the apparent extent of the abuse and harassment I’d bet it probably was.)
The most plausible explanation for this oversight, I think, is that Lovecraft wanted to avoid repeating many of the slurs out of his sense of old-fashioned politeness (most of his acquaintances recall that he was extremely courteous in person). To my eye, Lovecraft goes out of his way in these essays to avoid going into details about any of the attacks on Hyman, antisemitic or otherwise, with the exception of those which, as a result of being mad as official complaints to the Executive Judges, had inevitably had to be aired in the process of the Judges giving their reports (which consistently exonerated Hyman). This being the case, I think Lovecraft was deliberately avoiding repeating smears where he could avoid it for the sake of not giving them further exposure.
Either way, it is interesting to see how a Gamergate-like pester-mob could emerge (albeit on an inevitably smaller scale) in pre-Internet times, and Lovecraft’s points about how tolerance of such behaviour within a community propagates and normalises that behaviour remain strikingly relevant to fandom today. Those who use, say, Lovecraft’s image being retired from being used as the World Fantasy Award trophy as a springboard for Rapid Puppy-esque campaigns to save science fiction from the “wrong” type of fan may kid themselves that they are defending Lovecraft’s honour, but I am not sure he would want the sort of “defence” they offer.
At this point we come to Lovecraft’s last days. In August of 1936 he wrote In a Sequester’d Providence Churchyard Where Once Poe Walk’d, a brief poem evoking the image of Poe’s ghost strolling about in the graveyard – a decent enough piece which has an extra morbid air added to it when you realise it was written mere months after the death of Robert E. Howard, one of Lovecraft’s best friends, and less than a year before Lovecraft himself would die. Lovecraft’s obituary for Howard represented perhaps Lovecraft’s most public outpouring of vulnerable emotion, with Lovecraft finding much to praise in Howard despite their extremely different social backgrounds and the intense debates they would partake in during their correspondence. (He even says nice things about Howard’s boxing stories, despite the fact that Lovecraft had little but contempt for the sport and would have surely found the stories artistically pointless.)
The last story Lovecraft is known to have collaborated on is The Night Ocean, another piece written with R.H. Barlow and perhaps the most accomplished and serious of their collaborations. In fact, Lovecraft was extremely complimentary of Barlow, claiming that he’d only had a minor hand in tuning it up here and there. It’s essentially a mood piece about an artist who, taking a beach vacation, sits by the sea for weeks on end feeling a curious connection to it and having strange thoughts of the Sun fading out in the distant future and the sea ruling over a night-shrouded Earth. There are recurring hints that something horrible is happening on some near-subconscious level of the story – the seaside town has a string of disappearances, the narrator finds something nasty on the beach, and finally some Deep One-like figure is seen emerging from the sea in the dead of night.
The story doesn’t come to any definitive climax aside from that sight, and there’s an enduring sense that the narration is keeping something from us; for instance, could the narrator have had some sort of role in the killings? (In particular, they seem almost suspiciously keen to justify not reporting their discovery of a severed hand to the authorities.) The fact that all these enigmas never quite resolve themselves beyond the vision of the fish creature means that the story may be frustrating to some readers expecting a bit more of a conventional bang at the end, but it’s pretty good as a mood piece.
There is not much left to tell after this; the death warrant that Lovecraft had issued on himself and had countersigned by various eldritch powers and dead sorcerers raised from their essential salts and sent to Robert Bloch finally began to take effect. Aside from some notes and instructions on how his affairs should be wrapped up in the event of his death, Lovecraft produced only two especially significant works after his contributions to The Night Ocean. His last major essay was Suggestions For a Reading Guide – developed as a ghostwritten chapter for Anne Tillery Renshaw’s Well Bred Speech that was not used in the end, it is basically a reading guide for all subjects under the sun which aren’t supernatural horror, an ambitious project which between Lovecraft’s cultural blinkers and the sheer enormity of the task he set himself could never have been as comprehensive an overview as Supernatural Horror In Literature. His final completed poem was a little tribute to Clark Ashton Smith and his various works. A brief diary of his last illness exists; after that, nothing.
With Lovecraft gone, it was down to his writer friends to see to the preservation of his work. It is quite appropriate that Lovecraft’s final fictional collaboration should have been with Barlow, for Barlow here comes perhaps the closest to the sort of literary horror that Lovecraft’s fiction hinted at more often than it actually accomplished (save for his very best stories) of any of Lovecraft’s direct apprentices, at least in terms of work produced during Lovecraft’s own lifetime. In the process of his final illness Lovecraft made his wishes clear that he wanted Barlow to handle his literary estate, and one has to wonder whether Barlow would have handled the job rather better than the rather mxed job that August Derleth did.
Unfortunately, Derleth had – on the basis of a throwaway comment made in one of Lovecraft’s letters to him – jumped to the conclusion that Lovecraft wanted him to be the literary executor, and he strongarmed his way into taking control of matters. (Joshi in I Am Providence offers a chronicle of the sordid affair.) Shunted off to one side, Barlow decided that it wasn’t worth the fight and, though he would contribute some editing and a few notes for some of Arkham House’s publications of Lovecraft’s texts, eventually drifted away from the scene to become a distinguished anthropologist of Mesoamerican cultures.
Here an interesting parallel develops between Barlow and Samuel Loveman, in that both individuals were gay men who were close friends with both Lovecraft and at least one other major American author dealing in the supernatural and the weird. Just as Loveman provides a link between Ambrose Bierce and Lovecraft, so too would Barlow end up bridging the gap between Lovecraft and William Burroughs, who in early 1950 would study the Mayan Codices under Barlow’s tutelage. It is fascinating to wonder what Barlow might have produced had his acquaintance with Burroughs rekindled his desire to write fiction, especially if he’d been exposed to some of the bizarre uses Burroughs made of Mesoamerican mythology in the Nova Express trilogy. Sadly, however, Barlow would not live to see Burroughs’ zenith as a writer; threatened in January of 1951 with exposure of his homosexuality, he committed suicide.
As for Lovecraft’s postmortem legacy, it has survived the occasionally haphazard management and odd interpretations pushed by August Derleth to become nigh-ubiquitous in fandom circles. There’s an odd dichotomy going on between the sort of pop culture geek cred use of Lovecraftianisms to spice things up pointlessly – the sort of “Cthulhu with everything” approach which makes so many of his monsters and tomes and other motifs of his work so overexposed – and the literary horror tradition he contributed to and which now looks back to him, especially whenever people try to tap the same “cosmic horror” vein he is a major innovator of.
In terms of actually reading his work, I would say that as much as I like some of his stuff, he is definitely an acquired taste. Politically speaking his attitudes were pretty terrible, and seeped into his stories often enough to make his back catalogue a minefield but not often enough or pervasively enough that I feel inclined to discard him outright, though others will draw the line at other points. Even if you set that aside, though, his writing style remains archaic even for his era; it’s definitely somewhat wooden, and even if you are willing to be charitable and say that it’s wooden in a deliberately carved manner with a particular aesthetic effect in mind it’s still a love-it-or-hate it sort of thing.
In my view, when Lovecraft was at his best – The Music of Erich Zann, The Rats In the Walls, The Case of Charles Dexter Ward, The Whisperer In Darkness – nobody could beat him. When he was at his worst – Medusa’s Coil, The Street, The Horror At Red Hook – he was awful. His importance to the history of the horror and fantasy genres is undeniable, as is his contribution to the development of fandom, but we can acknowledge that without endorsing all of his views and we certainly don’t need to pretend that his work represents some sort of essential canon that people need to read if they want to be a real fan.
I also think he is a useful subject to look into because he was very closely involved with the early days of fantasy and SF fandom, and documented a lot of his interactions in that sphere, and interestingly some of the personal conflicts and arguments about the scope and purpose of fandom groups he got into have their own parallels with conflicts in fandom today. It wouldn’t necessarily be applicable or desirable to apply a 1930s solution to a 2010s problem, but it might help us understand the disputes that assail us presently if we can look at similar disputes from the past and see how they panned out. Lovecraft’s interactions with fandom and his writings on them provide us with just such a set of examples, and you don’t need to like or even respect the person recording those examples to get some use out of them if you are looking into this sort of thing.
Taking his likeness off the World Fantasy Award may have direly offended many fans of his – including S.T. Joshi – but I am inclined to think it was the right call, particularly since that it was his works that represent his legacy far better than his deeply flawed personal views. We can respect his work without embracing everything about him, and I would argue that there is something distinct and unique about his work and his particular personal touch which makes it interesting in its own right, unlike Robert E. Howard’s basically kind of disposable populist pulp adventure stories.
To be honest, I tend to look a little askance at Joshi’s objections to the World Fantasy Award removing Lovecraft’s likeness. Given that Joshi has built a career out of being Lovecraft’s editor, biographer, and the general custodian of Lovecraft’s legacy, he naturally has a personal interest in Lovecraft’s profile remaining as high and as prominent as possible, because of course if we forget about Lovecraft we would quite likely also forget about Joshi.
Or perhaps Joshi has another reason to find the prospect of Lovecraft’s face being removed chilling – as though it comes a little too close to an uncomfortable truth left out of his biography of Lovecraft but visible here and there in the cracks and gaps.
What exactly did respond when a juvenile Lovecraft called forth to unknown gods on a homemade altar in the woods? Was Lovecraft’s mother Susie really just seeing things when she saw strange creatures manifest, and was her insistence that Lovecraft was too monstrous to marry based on some secret she took to the grave with her? Was Lovecraft’s father Winfield really that off-base when he claimed that a conspiratorial group was performing odd ceremonies on Susie? Just what engineered Lovecraft’s long period of social paralysis and mental stagnation after high school? What are we to make of Lovecraft’s tendency to haunt cemeteries and as far back as The Tomb write morbid caricatures of himself like Pickman or Joseph Curwen with such ghoulish and necromantic interests? Why did he become so skeletal in his later years? Why is it that among Lovecraft’s notes there is a chronology of his fiction, with numbers of stories per year logged, with spaces provided up to 1948 but no further? And how, dear reader, can we avoid the chilling implications of these, the final known photographs of Lovecraft taken before his “death” – photographs in which his face has lost almost all definition?
For you see, it is quite obvious from the above images that far from dying, H.P. Lovecraft ascended to become Slenderman.