It’s understandable that Arkham House would have wanted to produce the Selected Letters series – a five-volume collection of correspondence cherrypicked from the massive amounts of letters Lovecraft produced in his lifetime. After all, he was far more prolific a letter-writer than he was a short story author, poet, or essayist, so when those other wells has been tapped, tapping the letters was a good way to get more Lovecraft after there.
Furthermore, August Derleth himself was one of Lovecraft’s regular correspondents, and putting out these collections gave Derleth a chance to show the world a side of Lovecraft which he’d seen but nobody outside of Lovecraft’s circle of contacts would have. The fact that these were specifically Selected Letters, however, allowed Derleth to remain a certain amount of leverage over the fandom.
As I’ve outlined previously, Derleth used the infamous “black magic quote” to push his particular interpretation of the Cthulhu Mythos as the “canonical” one, despite the fact that if we accept it as true, it makes Lovecraft look like an incompetent writer who couldn’t adequately communicate his ideas in his actual stories, and the “black magic quote” seems to fit Derleth’s stories (written before and after Lovecraft’s death, some of them misattributed to Lovecraft) far better.
That quote supposedly came from one of Lovecraft’s letters, but as best can be determined Lovecraft never wrote it – or at least, if it exists in any of his letters, none can be found that reproduce it, and the overall philosophical thrust of Lovecraft’s writing would seem to be against it. Precisely because Derleth was sat on top of the pile of surviving letters and choosing which got out to the public, though, it was always possible for Derleth to brush off objections by saying “Well, it’s got to be somewhere here, I just can’t find it right now.”
It’s even possible that Derleth knew that he didn’t have any original for the quote, just a rough second-hand paraphrase (which turns out to be of a passage which says exactly the opposite), but frankly I don’t credit Derleth with that level of intellectual honesty: after all, this is the guy who passed off a bunch of stories as lost Lovecraft tales or “posthumous collaborations” when they were nothing of the sort.
Hippocampus Press have, over the past few years, tried to step into the gap here, producing a Collected Letters series edited by David E. Schultz and S.T. Joshi which compile as many of Lovecraft’s surviving correspondence as they can (rights issues causing complications in a few cases). These gather together Lovecraft’s missives by correspondent, by and large, with the first part of the series being Essential Solitude, a two-volume collection of the letters of Lovecraft and Derleth.
The presentation is pretty simple: put the letters in chronological order, with a number to allow for ease of future citation and notes on the source, and provide footnotes for clarification where necessary. Lovecraft’s side of the exchange is much more complete than Derleth’s, though it’s usually reasonably possible to follow the flow of the conversation anyway; still, this is obviously not the sort of product you’re likely to be too interested in unless you are either enough of a Lovecraft or Derleth fanatic to want to own every single word written by them or extremely interested in the glimpse into the history of the two men, the era they lived in, and the shape of fandom at the time. (The latter’s my main interest here.)
One thing which immediately stands out is the more relaxed style of Lovecraft’s writing. Having drunk deep of the cultural mores concerning putting on a gentlemanly facade, Lovecraft’s public writing was often a little stiff, especially his essays, but here he writes much more informally. His letters are in some ways reminiscent of the letters he uses in his fiction when it gets epistolary – like in The Whisperer In Darkness or The Case of Charles Dexter Ward, and some of the events narrated (like Derleth’s months-long quest for a long out-of-print MP Shiel collection) are just as interesting, in their own more mundane way. In Charles Dexter Ward the various necromancers talk about swapping dead people about, and the way they do it is just like how Lovecraft and Derleth talk about swapping rare books between each other.
Lovecraft is exposed here as one of his own angriest critics; he hated The Horror At Red Hook himself, though more for the pulpy melodrama than the racism, and even as he was in the process of writing The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath he confesses that he isn’t sure it’s any good. Towards the end of his life he more or less lost all confidence in his writing; Derleth sneakily submitted The Shadow Over Innsmouth and The Dreams In the Witch-House to Weird Tales without Lovecraft’s consent because Lovecraft didn’t seem inclined to, and whilst Lovecraft was happy enough to get the $140 cheque for Witch-House‘s acceptance (Farnsworth Wright rejected Innsmouth) and seems to have taken this in stride, that’s still kind of a dick move on Derleth’s part – well-meaning, of course, but still a dick move.
Part of the dynamic of their friendship involved sharing constructive criticism of each other’s work; Lovecraft’s suggestions on Derleth’s stories sound reasonable enough (bearing in mind the draft stories themselves are not reprinted here). There’s a slip where he talks about how parchment had fallen out of widespread use in favour of paper by the 18th century, in that he phrases it almost like he’s remembering it rather than because he’d researched the fact, though this is surely an accident, right?
Lovecraft also seemed to enjoy an early draft of The Lair of the Star-Spawn, though I can only conclude this is something of a lapse of taste on his part; perhaps the story’s panderings to his racist preconceptions (with an entire ethnicity, the Tcho-Tcho people, being cited as being entirely corrupt) encouraged him. (My opinion of Derleth is raised somewhat by discovering that even he thought Lair was awful.)
As far as criticism of Derleth’s mainstream materials goes, Lovecraft largely restricts himself to factual issues (pointing out that some of the names Derleth had chosen for a New England Catholic family seemed more reminiscent of Protestant or Puritan families from the region, for instance). There’s also a bit of a discussion about the role of artificial affectations in writing. Whilst it might sound a bit rich for Lovecraft to come down against these considering some of the stuff he’d written, it’s actually interesting to see how he considered them a weakness in his own writing he tried to overcome, and also notable that in a 1927 letter Lovecraft pointedly says that “If I’m still alive in 1937″ he’ll ask Derleth if he still believes in the necessity of artificial affectations in personal and literary style. Of course, Lovecraft died in 1937 – and Derleth’s output was cursed by affectations forever after.
The big recurring dispute over the span of the years in terms of Derleth’s mainstream writing, however, comes from the role of coincidence. Lovecraft thinks that Derleth relies entirely too much on contrived coincidences in his plots. Derleth not only believes that coincidences happen all the time, but also seems to believe they contain some hint of the reality of the supernatural. Lovecraft seems to take the stance that whilst unlikely coincidences do happen in reality, especially notable ones are unlikely enough that they seem implausible when put in a fictional context, and particularly in mainstream writing Derleth should be aiming for plausibility.
Derleth’s willingness to believe in the supernatural and paranormal results in a discussion between him and Lovecraft as to the genre boundaries of the “weird tale”, with Lovecraft taking the view that a genuine weird tale (in the sense of the supernatural horror fiction and proto-fantasy of the era) requires some element which cannot be explained by understood natural laws and, thus, acts as a sign that those laws have been suspended in some fashion in the course of the tale. Derleth disagrees (though we only get some parts of his side of the argument), essentially on the grounds that anything is explicable through natural laws, it’s just that we haven’t sussed them all out yet, and therefore, because ghosts might be real and consistent with known natural laws, under Lovecraft’s definition ghost stories can’t be weird fiction.
Lovecraft’s rebuttal is to point out that, were the existence of ghosts to become scientifically proven and explained, ghost stories genuinely would no longer count as weird tales – they’d lose the frisson of the unknown as a result, and the format as it exists both today and in Lovecraft and Derleth’s time gets its power largely from the fact that it is in the realm of the unknown and/or the counterfactual, and as such part of the purview of imaginative writers who don’t want to be constrained by the limitations of the real world.
I am inclined to agree with Lovecraft’s belief that, were we to scientifically demonstrate and explain the existence of ghosts, then we would forever after read ghost stories differently – specifically, I think that largely we’d either scoff at how wrong they got it, or be stunned by how close they were to the truth, much as we do with old-timey science fiction stories that build their premise around atom bombs, trips to the Moon, or computer networks.
I also think that Lovecraft’s argument glances against, but doesn’t directly state, the central flaw in Derleth’s premise: namely, that “Anything is possible” is philosophically facile, and even if true it doesn’t imply that “Everything is possible” – otherwise one plus one could sometimes equal five, ten, a billion, or infinity. To say that all things in fiction exist within the world of possibility denies the human mind the capacity to conceive of things which do not exist and are not true; the morass of lies the world is drowning in should put paid to any such notion.
The discussion also highlights some of Derleth’s severe blind points as a critic. It arises as a result of Derleth badly wanting to categorise A Rose For Emily by William Faulkner as a weird tale; Lovecraft is against this on the entirely reasonable basis that there is nothing in the story which suggests any suspension of natural law or the work of the supernatural.
Again, I’m inclined to take Lovecraft’s side: you can, if you wish, come up with a supernatural explanation for the events of the story, but that would be entirely your invention; the facts as given by Faulkner, on the contrary, point to a very clear, very specific, and wholly natural explanation for what has happened. It is certainly shocking and horrific, but tossing aside Occam’s Razor and groping for a supernatural explanation here would seem to require one to outright reject what Faulkner is trying to convey for the sake of press-ganging him into the weird fiction canon, perhaps out of some desperate bid to give it literary credibility.
So far as I can tell, Derleth agrees that it lacks a clear supernatural element, but doesn’t consider the supernatural in and of itself to be necessary to a weird tale; the partial nature of Derleth’s side of the conversation, unfortunately, means we don’t have a full idea of what he thought was weird about A Rose For Emily, though I vaguely get the impression that he regarded Emily’s very behaviour as being sufficiently unusual to qualify. Here I think Derleth exhibits a certain naivety about just how odd people can get without that qualifying as supernatural or otherworldly or anything beyond the mundane.
Not that Lovecraft’s scepticism stops weirdness coming to his doorstep anyway. We get to see his amusement as authors, occultists, and witches alike write to him asking after the reality of his stories or the truth behind the Cthulhu Mythos. Lovecraft at one point bemoans the loss of his copy of The Three Impostors – he’d lent it out to someone who’d suffered a house fire and it had burned up there. Question: who wanted to discourage Lovecraft from looking too deeply into the same secret society as Machen details there? Second question: given Lovecraft’s affinity for Rome and childhood paganism, was he a member of that society himself, or would they tend to regard his intellectualism and his lack of hedonistic impulses as an unacceptably Apollonian opposite to their Dionysian bent?
In 1932, Lovecraft mentions that mutual correspondent Harry Brobst has taken up a post in Providence at a student nurse at the Butler Hospital, which specialised in mental illness, and Lovecraft and he hang out when his studies allow. Through this we learn the curious detail that Lovecraft’s school headmaster was in the hospital suffering from persecution delusions.
Whist post-Lovecraft fiction often makes slightly flippant use of mental illness, I’ve always thought that Lovecraft himself had more standing to address the subject; as well as his own issues, both of his parents would spend their last years as residents of the Butler Hospital. (Add his headmaster’s residence there to your red string board, if you will.) This seems to be reflected in his gentle treatment of the subject here, which in some respects is very forward-thinking: there’s a bit where, apparently in response to Derleth expressing disbelief that people could find themselves too tired for letter-writing, Lovecraft makes an attempt to explain something not unlike spoon theory to him.
In terms of the prejudices of the era, subject like race or homosexuality rarely come up. When they do, Lovecraft’s racism is incredibly apparent, whilst both men express the type of patronising homophobia typical of well-meaning folk of the era – regarding homosexuality as an illness but not one which deserves moral condemnation, though Lovecraft expresses a somewhat dramatic distaste for the concept not necessarily because he finds it immoral, but because he finds it aesthetically displeasing and because he believes that the breaching of social norms in one sphere of life can only lead to a slippery slope resulting in the disintegration of all social norms. (The deepest they get into this arises in their discussion of the draft they’ve read of Donald Wandrei’s mainstream novel Invisible Sun, and Derleth expresses shock that some of the artistic friends of Wandrei’s he’s met are gay.)
Setting Lovecraft’s apparently quite sympathetic attitude to mental health against his typical for the time take on homosexuality (which seems in part to be a position he arrives at not because he passionately believes in it, but because it is consistent with his conservative political philosophy), and setting that against his racism, we end up with a picture of Lovecraft which at once humanises him more than the stock takes on him manage but also take away a lot of the apologetics surrounding his racism.
Why is that? Well, those who try and make out that Lovecraft’s racism is no big deal, but who retain enough intellectual honesty not to flat-out pretend he didn’t say some of the stuff he said try to pass it off as being merely what people believed at the time. For one thing, this is untrue because different people at the time believed different things: a range of opinions were available, Lovecraft cleaved to one of the more odious strands of opinion, and hypocritically did so despite the scientific principles he espoused here.
What these letters show is that a continuum of opinion existed within Lovecraft himself. In some matters he went along with the prejudices of the day, as with homosexuality. In some matters, like racism, he doubled down. In other matters, he took a more progressive view of things. In some matters, he flouted social norms entirely, as with his adamant atheism. “People believed that at the time” is an attempt to get Lovecraft off the hook by making out that it was entirely unthinkable for him to buck social norms and expectations by holding a different opinion from the majority, but actually he was entirely willing to do that in a bunch of subjects. Lovecraft trumpeted the racism of the time because he very much decided to believe in it and had his arguments in support of it; it’s far from a case of going along to get along.
The idea that he mellowed out late in life is also undermined here. Whilst he does flat-out disagree with Nazi racial policies, he does so because he argues that they are based too much on racial bloodline and not based enough on culture. Lovecraft regards (light-skinned) Jewish people to be potentially the equals of white folk to the extent that they are able to assimilate, and he believes that ultimately Jewish culture and “Aryan” culture (no such thing, Howie, at least not the way you’re using it here) are inherently hostile to each other. This does not amount to him ascribing the same capacity for assimilation to black people. Furthermore, even if he did universalise this take, it would still perpetuate ethnic bigotry and racism, since the cultural construct of race would still be a feature of the cultures in question.
Schultz and Joshi are not turning out a product which tons of people will bother to read here, but I am glad that they are undertaking the effort to make this material available anyway. For one thing, it means that other people’s biographical takes on Lovecraft – including Joshi’s own – can be fact-checked and corroborated by a wider audience, limiting the extent to which anyone in the future can try and pull a Derleth and dominate the field. For another, it’s steeped with fascinating period detail, and helps to paint a picture of the history of American genre fiction fandom as it existed during the pulp era.
Most of all, though, it means that attempts to sanitise Lovecraft’s views are doomed to failure. Published works can be brushed off as playing to the expectations of the time, but views expressed in private, especially when they are consistently expressed to multiple parties, cannot be disavowed so easily. If the idea of reading Lovecraft’s letters sounds either painfully offensive or brain-scrapingly boring to you, there’s no reason to look at this, but if you are interested in this then the correspondence with Derleth – concentrated as it is on literary topics in the main – doesn’t seem like a terrible starting place.