I am providence the life.., p.156

I Am Providence: The Life and Times of H. P. Lovecraft (2 VOLUMES), page 156


I Am Providence: The Life and Times of H. P. Lovecraft (2 VOLUMES)

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  In 1950 the first academic paper had emerged—James Warren Thomas’s “Howard Phillips Lovecraft: A Self-Portrait,” a master’s thesis written at Brown University. While Thomas did extensive research into Lovecraft’s New York period (based, of course, largely upon the letters to his aunts), he let his horror at Lovecraft’s racism colour his views, so that he called Lovecraft “narrow and prejudiced and strait-laced and lacking in ordinary human feeling . . .” Thomas wished to publish his thesis and asked Barlow (who still had legal control of the papers at the John Hay Library) and Derleth for permission to quote Lovecraft’s letters. Derleth was violently opposed to publication, since the work would cast Lovecraft in a very bad light, and he essentially squelched the project. The thesis finally did appear in gutted form in the University of Detroit literary magazine, Fresco, serialised over four issues (Fall 1958–Summer 1959). The Spring 1958 issue of Fresco had been entirely devoted to Lovecraft, and contains a few pieces of interest.

  By 1959 Derleth had gathered enough material to publish another miscellany volume, The Shuttered Room and Other Pieces. This set the stage for a resurgence of interest in Lovecraft in the 1960s. It is unclear how Derleth gained the funds to reissue Lovecraft’s major work in three volumes, The Dunwich Horror and Others (1963), At the Mountains of Madness and Other Novels (1964), and Dagon and Other Macabre Tales (1965). He declared that publishing these books caused significant delays in other projects,[51] but he also went on to cite the early film adaptations of Lovecraft, which must have generated some income for Arkham House. In any event, Derleth decided to keep these three books in print. In 1963 he also finally issued a slim volume of Collected Poems (it of course never pretended to be Lovecraft’s “complete” poetry), delayed for years by Frank Utpatel’s dilatoriness in producing illustrations; but it was well worth the wait, for Utpatel’s line drawings—particularly for Fungi from Yuggoth—are stunning.

  Meanwhile, in 1965, Derleth at last brought out the much-delayed first volume of Selected Letters. The project took so long because Derleth and Wandrei continued to receive new batches of letters that disturbed the chronological sequence they had established; money also was probably lacking. The second volume emerged in 1968, the third in 1971. Although full of mistranscriptions and bizarre editorial decisions regarding abridgements (in one instance only the greeting and closing of a letter were included, the body of the text entirely excised), the appearance of this set was a landmark. But Derleth had by this time developed a kind of hostility to the mainstream press (both because of some unfavourable reviews of early Arkham House books and, perhaps, also because his own mainstream reputation—culminating in 1945 with an article on him by Sinclair Lewis in Esquire—had steadily declined with the passing of the years), and so the appearance of the letters was noted only in the science fiction and fantasy community. Derleth also compiled one final miscellany volume, The Dark Brotherhood and Other Pieces (1966), an anthology, Tales of the Cthulhu Mythos (1969), and The Horror in the Museum and Other Revisions (1970).

  Some word should be said of the early media adaptations of Lovecraft. Although “The Dunwich Horror” was adapted for radio on the CBS series “Suspense” as early as 1949 (being just the sort of melodramatic, atmosphereless rendition that Lovecraft feared when he denied radio dramatisation rights for “The Dreams in the Witch House”), it was in the early 1960s that Lovecraft became a sudden media presence. At that time three films emerged in quick succession: The Haunted Palace (1964), Die, Monster, Die (1965), and The Shuttered Room (1967). The first was part of Roger Corman’s Poe series, and a Poe-related title was affixed to it even though it was clearly an adaptation of The Case of Charles Dexter Ward (and credited as such). The second is an adaptation of “The Colour out of Space,” while the third adapts a “posthumous collaboration.” All are interesting experiments (Vincent Price appears in the first, Boris Karloff in the second, Gig Young in the third), although none of them could be called intrinsically good films in their own right; ironically, the best is perhaps The Shuttered Room. Then came The Dunwich Horror (1970), a grotesque fiasco with the implausibly handsome Dean Stockwell playing Wilbur Whateley, the lovely Sandra Dee playing a character that has no existence in the original story, and the Old Ones being played, apparently, by hippies on an acid trip.

  Criticism in this decade was almost non-existent, although the Selected Letters was laying the seed for future work. Jack L. Chalker’s anthology, Mirage on Lovecraft (1965), is very insubstantial. Perhaps the best item remained unfortunately unpublished: Arthur S. Koki’s “H. P. Lovecraft: An Introduction to His Life and Writings,” a large master’s thesis for Columbia (1962) that used primary documents in presenting the course of Lovecraft’s life. Foreign interest, however, continued to be strong. A German collection of tales, Cthulhu: Geistergeschichten (1968), was translated by the distinguished poet H. C. Artmann. Then, in 1969, the prestigious French journal L’Herne devoted its entire twelfth issue to Lovecraft, featuring translations of works by him, translations of American critical articles, and many original French pieces.

  One work of criticism does indeed call for attention: Colin Wilson’s The Strength to Dream: Literature and the Imagination (1961). Wilson had gained celebrity by publishing, at the age of twenty-four, the challenging sociological study, The Outsider (1956). Now, turning his attention to weird and science fiction, he stumbled upon Lovecraft; his reaction was very bizarre. “In some ways, Lovecraft is a horrifying figure. In his ‘war with rationality,’ he brings to mind W. B. Yeats. But, unlike Yeats, he is sick, and his closest relation is with Peter Kürten, the Düsseldorf murderer . . . Lovecraft is totally withdrawn; he has rejected ‘reality’; he seems to have lost all sense of health that would make a normal man turn back halfway.”[52] How the inoffensive Lovecraft could possibly have caused Wilson to have this extreme reaction would be an interesting psychological study. It scarcely needs saying that Wilson’s entire blast is a tissue of nonsense, derived from an extraordinarily superficial reading of Lovecraft’s works (to the point that he has misconstrued the very plot of “The Shadow out of Time”) and a shockingly careless study of his life and thought. But Wilson later admitted that he is a cheerful optimist and was gravely offended by what he took to be Lovecraft’s pessimism (evidently Wilson, who claims some sort of standing as a philosopher, could not distinguish between pessimism and Lovecraft’s very different brand of “indifferentism”).

  Derleth, who had provided Wilson some source material for The Strength to Dream, was gravely offended by Wilson’s remarks. He challenged Wilson to write his own “Lovecraftian” novel, and the latter in short order produced The Mind Parasites (1967), the American edition of which Arkham House published. In the introduction Wilson grudgingly admitted that his treatment of Lovecraft in The Strength to Dream had been “unduly harsh”; but elsewhere he continued to aver that Lovecraft is an “atrocious writer” whose work is “finally interesting as case history rather than literature.”[53] The true fact of the matter is, of course, that Wilson is appalled by Lovecraft’s dark vision and its implicit repudiation of Wilson’s own naive belief in some future development of the human species.

  And yet, The Mind Parasites is a highly compelling piece of work, even though its premise—that a kind of “mind cancer” has afflicted the human race since about 1780, thereby producing artists who have a bleak, pessimistic outlook on life—is quite preposterous even as fiction. But Wilson has done what a true pastichist has to do: use Lovecraft’s conceptions as a springboard for his own vision. To date, almost no “Cthulhu Mythos” writers have followed Wilson in this regard. Wilson wrote two sequels to The Mind Parasites, The Philosopher’s Stone (1969) and The Space Vampires (1976); the former actually has a somewhat greater Lovecraftian content than The Mind Parasites, but it is a bit of a literary shambles and an excess of pompous philosophising, while The Space Vampires goes to the opposite extreme in being merely a science fiction/horror adventure story with relatively little relation to Lovecr
aft. Wilson, who has continued on occasion to write ignorantly on Lovecraft (see his introduction to the Creation Press edition of Crawling Chaos: Selected Works 1920–1925 [1993]), has also destroyed his reputation as an intellectual with a variety of credulous works on the occult, since he sees certain occult phenomena as foreshadowing that future advancement of the human species which is the core of what he calls his philosophy. Wilson, much more than Lovecraft, is a curiosity of intellectual history.

  If criticism was in short supply in the 1960s, a new generation of fiction writers was taking up the “Cthulhu Mythos.” Interestingly, two of the most dynamic figures were English, J. Ramsey Campbell (b. 1946) and Brian Lumley (b. 1937). Campbell is by far the more interesting figure. Around 1960, when he was only fourteen, he began writing stories based on Lovecraft. He sent these boldly to August Derleth, without revealing his age. Derleth saw merit in Campbell’s work, but advised him to drop the New England settings in his tales (Campbell had never been to New England) and set them in England instead. In this way Campbell evolved a British counterpart to Lovecraft’s fictional milieu. Derleth published Campbell’s The Inhabitant of the Lake and Less Welcome Tenants in 1964, when Campbell was eighteen. These pastiches are certainly written with a verve not found in much work of their kind, but they are still very derivative. Campbell realised the fact, and he almost immediately proceeded to turn violently away from Lovecraft and evolve his own style. By 1967 he began producing the tales that would fill his second collection, Demons by Daylight (1973), which in its way is one of the most significant volumes of weird fiction since The Outsider and Others: it introduced a radically new Ramsey Campbell, one who had evolved a dreamlike, hallucinatory style of his own and a very modern subject-matter involving sexual tension, alienation, and aberrant psychology. Campbell has gone on to become perhaps the leading writer of weird fiction since Lovecraft.

  Lumley’s fate has not been so happy. He began publishing stories in the late 1960s (some in Derleth’s small magazine, the Arkham Collector, which was a successor to the fine but short-lived Arkham Sampler of 1948–49 and which lasted for ten issues between 1967 and 1971), and his first collection, The Caller of the Black, appeared from Arkham House in 1971. Several other novels and story collections have followed. Lumley’s work is derivative not so much of Lovecraft as of Derleth: he has swallowed the “Derleth Mythos” whole and produces unwitting parodies of Lovecraft by mimicking Derleth’s Elder Gods, elementals, etc. In the novel Beneath the Moors (1974) one character actually has a genial chat with Bokrug, the water-lizard from “The Doom That Came to Sarnath”! In The Burrowers Beneath (1974) Lumley formalises Derleth’s good-vs.-evil scenario of Elder Gods vs. Old Ones by affixing upon the latter the ridiculous acronym CCD (Cthulhu Cycle Deities). Lumley has thankfully abandoned the “Cthulhu Mythos” and gone on to write multi-volume cycles of novels mixing fantasy and horror, whose unreadability is only matched by their inexplicable popularity.

  A very different work altogether is Dagon (1968), a novel by the distinguished poet, novelist, and short story writer Fred Chappell. This grim tale of psychological horror deftly uses Lovecraftian elements as backdrop. Although a fine novel, it received relatively poor reviews, but it won a prize when translated into French.[54] Chappell has in recent years written several more stories based on Lovecraft’s work or using Lovecraft as a character; some are collected in More Shapes Than One (1991).

  August Derleth died on July 4, 1971, leaving unfinished a final “posthumous collaboration,” a prospective novel entitled The Watchers out of Time. How exactly one is to evaluate Derleth’s stewardship of Lovecraft will depend upon one’s assessment of the four basic aspects of this stewardship: 1) the publication of Lovecraft’s work; 2) the criticism of his life and work; 3) the dissemination of the “Cthulhu Mythos”; and 4) the control of Lovecraft’s copyrights. On the latter three of these counts, there can be no doubt that Derleth deserves far more censure than praise. On only the first count can he possibly gain approbation, and even here there is room for debate. It has frequently been stated by Derleth’s partisans that he was not only the person who “put Lovecraft on the map” literarily, but the only one who could have done so: Barlow could not have done anything significant, and without Derleth’s aid Lovecraft’s work would have fallen into oblivion. This is highly questionable. I have already mentioned that Derleth made, to my mind, a fundamental error in deciding so quickly to publish Lovecraft himself, thereby preventing his work from reaching a mainstream audience and perhaps affecting the entire course of weird fiction in the latter half of this century. It cannot conclusively be stated that Lovecraft’s work would never have been rediscovered had Derleth not done so: I think it quite possible that scholars of the pulps would have recognised its merit sooner or later—probably sooner. Moreover, the papers at the John Hay Library would no doubt have been examined by some enterprising scholar whether or not Lovecraft’s work was readily available. Of course, the brute fact is that Derleth did rescue Lovecraft’s work, and that is something that cannot be taken away from him. But his legacy is nonetheless a decidedly mixed one.

  Sad to say, it seemed to require Derleth’s death to bring on the next stage of Lovecraft scholarship. The first half of the 1970s was an extraordinarily fertile period, both in terms of the publication of Lovecraft’s stories and criticism of his life and work. Beagle Books (later subsumed by Ballantine) began an extensive publication of Lovecraft in paperback in 1969; amusingly enough, however, only four of the eleven volumes of their “Arkham Edition of H. P. Lovecraft” contained works by Lovecraft; the other volumes featured the “posthumous collaborations,” a reprint of Derleth’s anthology, Tales of the Cthulhu Mythos, and, appallingly enough, Derleth’s Mask of Cthulhu and Trail of Cthulhu. What is more, the Beagle/Ballantine editions did not even contain many of Lovecraft’s best stories, since the paperback rights to these were owned by Lancer Books, which had issued two fine editions, The Dunwich Horror and Others (1963) and The Colour out of Space (1965), and kept them in print into the early 1970s (they were reprinted in 1978 by Jove). What is more, two volumes of Lovecraft’s “dreamland” tales were edited in 1970 by Lin Carter in his Adult Fantasy series for Ballantine, some of the contents of which overlap those of the Beagle editions. Nevertheless, the various Beagle/Ballantine editions sold nearly a million copies and definitively made Lovecraft a posthumous member of the counterculture. He became fashionable reading among high school and college students, and rock musicians began making covert allusions to him. (In the late 1960s there had even been a rock band named H. P. Lovecraft that issued two albums. Derleth reported that they substantially augmented sales of Arkham House books.[55]) The Beagle/Ballantine editions received a lengthy review in Time magazine in 1973, in which the reviewer Philip Herrera, although making some foolish errors, did succeed in a half-parodic imitation of Lovecraft’s style. There are also a few keen reflexions:

  Well did he know that true terror lies in the tension between our scientific age’s rationalism and our primordial sense of individual powerlessness—of being enmeshed in something vast, inexplicable and appallingly evil. For this reason he eschewed the stock devices of werewolves and vampires for a more intimate horror. . . .

  It is true that some of Lovecraft’s stories of the Cthulu [sic] Mythos—The Call of Cthulu, At the Mountains of Madness—rank high among the horror stories of the English language. But Great Cthulu only knows why perfectly good, independent writers from the late August Derleth to Colin Wilson have seized and elaborated on the Mythos in their work.[56]

  Foreign translations—collections as well as magazine and anthology appearances—became common at this time, as Lovecraft appeared in Dutch, Polish, Swedish, Norwegian, Rumanian, and Japanese. (There may in fact have been Japanese translations as early as the 1940s.) Foreign criticism continued apace, the leading contribution being Maurice Lévy’s Lovecraft ou du fantastique (1972), a revision of a 1969 dissertation for the Sorbonne. It may be the single best
monograph on Lovecraft, and it is unfortunate that it took sixteen years for an English translation to appear.

  The fan world was tremendously active. Among the highlights was a somewhat crudely produced but very substantial anthology, HPL (1972), edited by Meade and Penny Frierson, with fine pieces by George T. Wetzel, J. Vernon Shea, and many others. One of the most important contributions was Richard L. Tierney’s “The Derleth Mythos,” a one-page article that began the destruction of Derleth’s conception of the mythos. This work was substantially fostered by Dirk W. Mosig in his landmark essay “H. P. Lovecraft: Myth-Maker” (1976), which received widespread dissemination both here and abroad.

  Other fan work of the time was rather less distinguished. Darrell Schweitzer produced a respectable small anthology of criticism, Essays Lovecraftian (1976), but it received poor distribution. Also out of the fan community, although professionally published, was Lin Carter’s Lovecraft: A Look Behind the “Cthulhu Mythos” (1972), which made some egregious factual errors and wholly adopted the “Derleth Mythos,” but nevertheless presented an adequate “history” of the mythos, especially after Lovecraft’s death.

  In 1973 Joseph Pumilia and Roger Bryant founded the Esoteric Order of Dagon, an amateur press association in which members each produced humble magazines devoted to Lovecraft or weird fiction. Although in many cases the journals were very crude both in physical appearance and in contents, a surprising amount of substantial work appeared in them, including penetrating work by Kenneth W. Faig, Jr, Ben P. Indick, David E. Schultz, and others. Faig perhaps established himself as the leading scholar of Lovecraft during the early 1970s, doing a tremendous amount of biographical and bibliographical work in Providence. Much of this research was embodied in a huge unpublished monograph, “Lovecraftian Voyages” (1973). Also at this time R. Alain Everts was doing prodigious work in tracing Lovecraft’s surviving colleagues, but only a small portion of his research has seen print. Two bibliographies appeared, David A. Sutton’s Bibliotheca: H. P. Lovecraft (1971) and Mark Owings and Jack L. Chalker’s The Revised H. P. Lovecraft Bibliography (1973), but neither added much to Wetzel’s work.

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