Digging Up Spooky Roots

“Folk horror” as a subgenre has gained increasing recognition of late, in part because of the efforts of Facebook groups like Folk Horror Revival. The major players in that community operate, among various other projects, Wyrd Harvest Press, a self-publishing umbrella for various folk horror-relevant materials; Wyrd Harvest’s repertoire includes the Folk Horror Revival journal series, of which Field Studies represents the first entry.

Now in its second edition and edited by a cross-section of members of the Facebook group, Field Studies offers a range of essays, interviews, and other snippets on the general subject of the folk horror subgenre, coming across much like a genre-specific take on Strange Attractor.

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Dissecting Lovecraft Part 8: Supernatural Horror In Biography

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.

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Dissecting Lovecraft Part 7: Innsmouth, Heald, and Hitler

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.

We’ve previously seen how Lovecraft’s work reached its peak of ambition with At the Mountains of Madness, only for Lovecraft to become disheartened at his failure to sell it. Still, Lovecraft couldn’t stop writing if he wanted to eat, so the next phase of his writing saw him trying to rekindle his enthusiasm for his solo sories whilst doing plenty of revision work to try and scrape out a living.

The Trap is a revision Lovecraft did for Henry Whitehead. This is seen as a “secondary” revision and in truth there does not seem to be much Lovecraft in it to my eyes, though it’s an interest enough story about a mirror that traps a boarding school student who must be rescued by his teacher. The close of the story, in which the student turns up back in the teacher’s room and they need to come up with some sort of convoluted ruse to avoid any dodgy questions arising from the boy just turning up in the teacher’s room in the middle of the night, makes for slightly uncomfortable reading in a “How did this guy who was a teacher in his day job put so much thought into smuggling boys into and out of his room?” sort of way, and to be honest there doesn’t seem to be an enormous amount to it that’s especially Lovecraftian beyond one mild touch in which, as a result of being caught in the mirror, the kid ends up with his organs mirrored so his heart is on the right-hand side and so on, which borrows an entertainingly discomforting idea from The Mound.

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Dissecting Lovecraft Part 6: From Providence To Antarctica

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.

After the burst of fiction-writing which followed his return to Providence, Lovecraft would take the summer (and a good chunk of the spring) of 1927 off, though he was by no means idle. Stepping back into the world of amateur journalism, he offered up A Matter of Uniteds, his most even-handed account of the schism of 1912 and the two UAPAs that were born from it. His diplomatic stance and repudiation of inter-faction mud-slinging was a far cry from the more stalwartly defiant pose he’d adopted a decade earlier, but then again the circumstances of both UAPAs had greatly changed since then, with both factions suffering a crisis of low membership and limited output. (In fact, at the time of writing Lovecraft’s UAPA had basically collapsed.) Lovecraft candidly acknowledges that the Uniteds are in trouble, and urges a reconciliation to ensure the continued existence of an APA dedicated to prioritising actual writing over socialisation.

Not that Lovecraft had become a homebody again – quite the opposite. Whilst theoretically based once again in Providence, his unhappy experiences in New York and inability to visit England did not dissuade him from undertaking what travels he could, and for all that he claimed to be a hermit more interested in topography and architecture than people he certainly had plenty of friends that he spent much time visiting. Having already written a lot of accounts of his travels in letters to his aunts, in mid-1927 he began, with the brief The Trip of Theobald, to commence writing travelogues as standalone essays, opening up a new strand in his writing. Naturally, he would quickly mar this body of work with his racist rants; Vermont – A First Impression kicks off with an ugly tantrum about foreigners and dark-skinned people and industrialisation wrecking the southern portions of New England. (I mistyped that at first as Jew England and heard a distant howling from the general direction of Lovecraft’s grave.)

That said, it can’t be said to be a waste of time, even if the essay does mostly consist of gushing about how pretty Vermont is, if it helped Lovecraft get a feel for the local landscape he used so effectively in The Whisperer In Darkness. Some have bemoaned the amount of effort Lovecraft put into his travel writing, wishing he had produced more stories instead, but I am with Joshi on this one in thinking that Lovecraft’s travel writing was an important part of him assimilating and processing the impressions he had picked up on his journeys – and since those selfsame impressions ended up feeding into his stories, then writing about them was arguably a necessary part of the creative process that yielded them. The travel writing was doubtless useful to Lovecraft, but by goodness it makes at best utterly tedious and at worst infuriatingly narrow-minded reading, and out of all the volumes in the Collected Essays I would say the travel one is by far the least interesting.

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Dissecting Lovecraft Part 4: It’s Not Easy Marrying Greene

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.

We have seen how Lovecraft’s return to fiction-writing and continued involvement in amateur journalism circles coincided with him emerging from the social isolation he had held himself in for about a decade, with even his mother’s hospitalisation not slowing him down for long. In the wake of his mother’s death, Lovecraft would continue attending amateur journalism conventions – not a bad plan if you’re the sort of person who finds it useful to keep busy when getting through bereavement. Notably, he attended the NAPA convention, at which he was called on to deliver a brief post-banquet speech (Within the Gates) in which he turned out to be quite good at poking fun at himself:

It is charged that I, as so-called Rhode Island Chairman of some “intensive recruiting drive”, employed the backs of National application blanks to write “poetry” on. I take this opportunity to refute so unjust a charge, relying for absolute vindication on Mr. Dowdell; who will, as in the past, assure you that I never could and never can write a line of genuine poetry!

He included quips about his very presence at the convention, since in past years he had been a UAPA loyalist with not much nice to say about the NAPA, but in fact he had moderated his tone quite considerably recently. (Perhaps attending conventions and establishing better personal friendships with people helped him cool off – and Lovecraft’s friend W. Paul Cook being NAPA president for the year can’t have hurt either.)

It is just as well that he was at his most charming at that point, because would be at that convention that Lovecraft met Sonia Greene; soon she would join the UAPA and Lovecraft would be singing her praises in his United Amateur contributions, Lovecraft having retained the editorship for the 1921-1922 term. Much has been made of the apparent contradiction between Lovecraft’s avowed antisemitism on the one hand and, on the other, the high esteem he obviously held Greene in and his decision to marry her. In his private correspondence, Lovecraft speaks of her having a volatility he ascribes to her “Continental and Non-European heritage” but says she has genuine cultivation underlying that; this suggests to me that Lovecraft saw Greene’s Jewish background almost as an encumbrance she overcame through assimilation, and therefore forgivable to an extent.

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Dissecting Lovecraft Part 3: You Never Forget Your First Dunsany

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.

As we’ve previously explored, Lovecraft ended his nine year hiatus from prose fiction with The Tomb. Even as Lovecraft finished that story, he was becoming further entangled in amateur affairs. The current editor of the United Amateur, Andrew Lockhart, had been sent to Federal prison – Lovecraft, a supporter of Lockhart’s vigorous temperance campaigning, claimed that Lockhart had been stitched up by liquor and vice barons – leaving the post vacant. Lovecraft stepped in to ensure that the UAPA’s official organ would make it out, and took the opportunity to and round out its pages with a slew of his own contributions (not missing an opportunity to razz the National Amateur Press Association, which was undergoing an even more acute decline in membership and output than the UAPA).

Despite this unexpected increase in his UAPA workload, Lovecraft persisted in flexing storytelling muscles that had long laid dormant. Over the next few years, as I’ll be outlining here, Lovecraft crafted a plethora of work which for the most part tended to be fairly minor entries in his portfolio when taken individually, but provided important groundwork for Lovecraft both in terms of improving his craft and in pioneering ideas he would later express much more successfully in the major stories of his later career.

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Dissecting Lovecraft Part 2: The Vogon Poetry Phase

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.

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Dissecting Lovecraft Part 1: Juvenile Racist Pagan Sleuth At Large

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.

A while back I wrote a string of Robert E. Howard articles which attracted a certain amount of complaining and griping from Howard fans, upset that I had written their hero off as a bigot whose bigotry was so thematically and structurally integral to his work that I can’t really recommend his work to anybody unless they were looking deeply into the history of the fantasy genre. One of the complaints raised was that I was condemning Howard whilst letting his pen-pal Howard Phillips Lovecraft (who I affectionately think of as “Creepy Howie”) off the hook for being just as offensive, if not more so.

Now, I’m a self-confessed Lovecraft fan, but I like to think I am not an uncritical one, and I honestly don’t think I was being uncritical in the previous articles. Nonetheless, I’ve been acutely aware that it’s been a while since I read Lovecraft. Over the years I like to think I have become more socially aware, particularly when it comes to issues of privilege and marginalisation, and perhaps some evidence for this process having happened is the way my assessment to texts I had previously uncritically loved have changed. Believe it or not, when I started my Conan article I didn’t intend it to be the brutal hatchet job it turned out to be; I genuinely expected that I would reread the stories, criticise the more egregious instances of bigotry, but also praise the stories which remained genuinely praiseworthy. I was surprised to just what extent I found the stories shockingly offensive; it’s like I was reading them with brand new eyes, finally taking onboard matters which I was only too happy to overlook for the sake of a fun adventure story in my younger years.

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