I am providence the life.., p.157

I Am Providence: The Life and Times of H. P. Lovecraft (2 VOLUMES), page 157


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

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  All this work culminated in 1975 with the near-simultaneous emergence of three substantial books about Lovecraft: L. Sprague de Camp’s Lovecraft: A Biography (Doubleday); Frank Belknap Long’s Howard Phillips Lovecraft: Dreamer on the Nightside (Arkham House); and Willis Conover’s Lovecraft at Last (Carrollton-Clark).

  It would, I suppose, be uncharitable of me to speak ill of de Camp’s work, for it is without question the first significant full-scale biography of Lovecraft and embodies more research than any other published volume up to that time. De Camp spent three or four years working on his biography—consulting papers at the John Hay Library, interviewing old colleagues of Lovecraft, and reading Lovecraft’s obscurer writings. And yet, what strikes one about his bulky work is its sketchiness: very complicated matters are passed over with misleading brevity, and much of the biography develops a fragmented and random character because de Camp has not really pondered the interrelations between Lovecraft’s life, work, and thought. There are, to be sure, any number of mistakes of fact, but the biography’s failings go far beyond such surface details: it seriously errs in its very conception.

  De Camp admitted that he was temperamentally nothing like Lovecraft: not sensitive to environment, looking to the future rather than the past, a go-getter “professional” writer intent on sales rather than on aesthetic expression, etc. etc. These differences are embarrassingly evident. Whenever de Camp encounters some facet of Lovecraft’s personality that he cannot understand or does not share, he immediately undertakes a kind of half-baked posthumous psychoanalysis. Hence he refers to Lovecraft’s sensitivity to place as “topomania”—as if no one could be attached to the physical tokens of his birthplace without being considered neurotic.

  Perhaps the worst failing of de Camp’s biography is his treatment of Lovecraft’s philosophical thought—or, rather, the absence thereof. Although a popular writer on science, de Camp was not a trained philosopher and was entirely incapable of tracing the sources or evolution of Lovecraft’s world view and the degree to which it structured his literary work. Many readers would be excused if, after reading de Camp’s work, they concluded that Lovecraft had no world view at all. At the same time, de Camp harped upon Lovecraft’s racial views all out of proportion to their significance in his general philosophy, and without even a proper understanding of their origin or purpose.

  As for de Camp’s literary criticism, the most charitable thing that can be said of it is that it is a trifle amateurish. De Camp had little appreciation of literature beyond the level of popular entertainment, and he accordingly took great umbrage when Lovecraft properly trashed pulp fiction as the hackwork that it was—perhaps because de Camp’s own science fiction and fantasy is not much above this level. De Camp’s highest praise for a Lovecraft tale is that it is a “rousing good yarn.”

  It is not surprising, therefore, that de Camp’s book received widespread condemnation in the fan press. De Camp responded to this barrage of criticism by claiming loftily that he had merely offended the Lovecraft “cult” by knocking their idol down a few notches; but the facts are more complex than this. It is not that de Camp violated the canons of “objectivity” by passing value judgments—this is the proper function of any biographer; it is that these value judgments were arrived at through inadequate understanding and false perspective. The fact that many of these judgments were antipodally at variance with the views of all Lovecraft’s close friends should have suggested to de Camp that there was something wrong with his assessments.

  And yet, for all its inadequacies, de Camp’s biography did do some good. Although it gave ammunition to several reviewers to attack Lovecraft (notable among these were Ursula K. Le Guin and Larry McMurtry, whose ignorant snipes ended up casting more ridicule upon themselves than upon Lovecraft), the volume did indeed give Lovecraft wider exposure in the general literary world and helped to interest an entirely new legion of enthusiasts and scholars in Lovecraft the man and writer. One of these was myself: I devoured the volume at the age of seventeen and felt that there was much work to be done on this strange and little-known writer.

  Frank Long’s Howard Phillips Lovecraft: Dreamer on the Nightside, although it emerged roughly at the same time as de Camp’s biography, was in fact written as a direct response to it: Long read much of de Camp’s work in manuscript and confessed to me that he so objected to the portrayal of Lovecraft that he found there that he felt the need to write his own version. Long’s is, of course, nothing more than an extended memoir, not a formal biography; and it is flawed on several counts. Minor failings such as silly forays into literary criticism, an unconvincing attempt to recall Lovecraft’s exact words on a given occasion, and an embarrassing question-and-answer session in which Lovecraft is made to expound his views on various subjects can be set aside. What cannot be ignored is the imprecision of Long’s memory and the haste with which he wrote his book; the result was that the manuscript had to be exhaustively revised by Arkham House’s editor, James Turner, to such a degree that as it stands it is virtually a collaborative work. Long should have written this memoir many years earlier; by 1974 his memories of Lovecraft had lapsed to the point that many of his comments are highly unreliable. Nevertheless, the picture of Lovecraft that emerges from this ungainly book is far more accurate than that found in de Camp: here at least is a Lovecraft that is recognisable and bears some kinship with the man we find from his letters, essays, and stories.

  Unquestionably the finest of the trilogy of books on Lovecraft to appear in 1975 is Willis Conover’s Lovecraft at Last. I have already spoken of this heartfelt memoir of a boy and the older man he revered, and of the unstinting labour and expense Conover put into this volume so that it has already become a legend in modern book design. It presents perhaps the truest portrait of Lovecraft of the three books, since of course many of its words are by Lovecraft himself, in the form of his letters to Conover. It also provides a fascinating glimpse into the little-known world of fantasy fandom of the 1930s.

  In 1976 the final two volumes of Selected Letters appeared under the editorship of James Turner. The completed five-volume set is certainly a monument, in spite of its errors and abridgements, and it has materially aided in the renaissance of scholarship during the last two decades. It was just at this time that I myself was becoming involved in the field, so that my perspective must now change from that of an historian to that of a spectator and, later, a participant.

  Dirk W. Mosig, a German professor of psychology, was at this time the leading scholarly figure in the field and the focus of a growing international interest in Lovecraft. The actual articles Mosig published in his relatively brief career are not at all reflective of his importance, for they are either general biographical articles or psychoanalytical approaches to Lovecraft utilising the theories of Jung. Mosig was, like Lovecraft himself, a tremendous letter-writer, and he prodigally dispersed his comprehensive knowledge of Lovecraft to all parties; he moreover lent considerable assistance to editors and publishers overseas, so that previously unavailable material by and about Lovecraft began appearing in translation. I can attest that Mosig was the most significant influence on my own understanding of Lovecraft, even though my views have departed from his in some particulars. Perhaps Mosig’s greatest failing was, paradoxically, his enthusiasm: he was so taken with Lovecraft that he could see few flaws in either his character or his work (he defended even Lovecraft’s poetry). Around 1978, a variety of personal difficulties led to Mosig’s abrupt departure from the field.

  But by this time several others had, through Mosig’s influence, become interested in Lovecraft. One of the leading figures was Donald R. Burleson, a professor of mathematics and English who began writing careful studies of the topographical and literary sources behind Lovecraft’s tales. This phase of his work culminated in H. P. Lovecraft: A Critical Study (1983), still perhaps the single best overview of Lovecraft’s work. From this point on, however, Burleson developed radically and controversially into a deconstr
uctionist critic who keenly probed Lovecraft by means of the most contemporary and sophisticated critical tools available; and his monograph, Lovecraft: Disturbing the Universe (University Press of Kentucky, 1990), remains the most challenging book yet written on Lovecraft.

  Barton L. St Armand, professor of English at Brown University, took a more orthodox academic approach but produced no less scintillating results. He had already written an admirable master’s thesis on Lovecraft at Brown (1966), and went on to produce such fine pieces as “Facts in the Case of H. P. Lovecraft” (1972; on The Case of Charles Dexter Ward), “H. P. Lovecraft: New England Decadent” (1974; a study of Lovecraft’s fusion of Puritanism and Decadence), and The Roots of Horror in the Fiction of H. P. Lovecraft (1977), a long study of “The Rats in the Walls.” St Armand’s work is distinguished for its literary polish and its critical sophistication, and must be pondered deeply by all students of Lovecraft.

  Not all work, academic or otherwise, was quite this meritorious. Such things as John Taylor Gatto’s Monarch Notes study of Lovecraft (1977) and Darrell Schweitzer’s The Dream Quest of H. P. Lovecraft (1978) are scarcely worth the paper they are printed on. Less contemptible is Philip A. Shreffler’s H. P. Lovecraft Companion (1977), although it is largely a series of plot summaries of Lovecraft’s stories and an annotated glossary of characters and places cited in the fiction.

  By this time my own work was beginning to see fruition. I had initially begun by assembling a volume reprinting important critical statements on Lovecraft from the 1940s to the 1970s, H. P. Lovecraft: Four Decades of Criticism (1980), which appears to have been the first work on Lovecraft from an academic publisher. The next year my bibliography of Lovecraft and Lovecraft criticism—compiled with the assistance of many individuals in the Lovecraft community, especially Mosig and David E. Schultz—was published. During this time, while attending Brown University, I had begun a comparison of the manuscripts of Lovecraft’s entire work—but chiefly his fiction—with the published editions, finding to my horror thousands of errors in the standard Arkham House editions of the tales. After protracted negotiations with Arkham House, I finally arranged for the publication of corrected texts of Lovecraft’s fiction, which emerged in four volumes over five years: The Dunwich Horror and Others (1984), At the Mountains of Madness and Other Novels (1985), Dagon and Other Macabre Tales (1986), and The Horror in the Museum and Other Revisions (1989). If anything I have done on Lovecraft deserves to survive, it is this edition; for it makes possible the analysis of Lovecraft’s work based upon what he actually wrote.

  The specialty publisher Necronomicon Press, founded by Marc A. Michaud in 1976, offered an abundant forum for much of my work and the work of other Lovecraft scholars. The journal Lovecraft Studies, founded in 1979, generated considerable work of value. The press also issued a good number of Lovecraft’s obscure or unpublished works in small pamphlets (notably David E. Schultz’s landmark critical edition of the Commonplace Book [1987]), as well as several important monographs, among them Kenneth W. Faig, Jr’s The Parents of Howard Phillips Lovecraft (1990) and Richard D. Squires’s study of the Lovecraft family in Rochester (1995).

  In 1981 Robert M. Price founded the fanzine Crypt of Cthulhu as a kind of lighter version of Lovecraft Studies; nevertheless, much valuable work appeared in its pages, especially by Price himself, who examined the “Cthulhu Mythos” from his academic perspective as a professor of religious studies. Lately, however, Price has become convinced that Derleth’s conception of the mythos is not all wrong; he has also become, incongruously, a deconstructionist. His later work has accordingly not been well received.

  Lovecraft Studies and Crypt of Cthulhu afforded a forum for the most significant Lovecraft criticism of the 1980s, including Steven J. Mariconda’s studies of Lovecraft’s prose style, Paul Montelone’s philosophical studies of Lovecraft’s tales, and fine papers on a variety of topics by Mike Ashley, Peter Cannon, Stefan Dziemianowicz, Jason C. Eckhardt, Norman R. Gayford, Robert H. Waugh, and others.

  Much of the recent work on Lovecraft achieved a sort of symbolic culmination in 1990, the centennial of his birth. During this time several important books emerged from academic presses: Peter Cannon’s H. P. Lovecraft (1989) for Twayne’s United States Authors Series; Burleson’s Lovecraft: Disturbing the Universe; my H. P. Lovecraft: The Decline of the West (Starmont House, 1990). The H. P. Lovecraft Centennial Conference, taking place at Brown University on August 17–19, brought together nearly all the leading scholars in the field as well as some from overseas. The proceedings of the conference were published the next year, as was an important anthology of original essays, An Epicure in the Terrible, edited by David E. Schultz and myself and published by Fairleigh Dickinson University Press.

  The centennial conference was such an epochal event that it seemed to result in a kind of exhaustion among Lovecraft scholars. In the past decade relatively little criticism of great substance has appeared. Part of this dearth is the result of the nearly simultaneous collapse of Lovecraft Studies (which became highly irregular after 1999 and was defunct by 2005) and Crypt of Cthulhu (which came to an end in 2003). Efforts to revive both these journals have so far come to nothing, and I have now begun a new publication, The Lovecraft Annual (2007f.), although its infrequent appearance cannot generate sustained interest. In the meantime, other scholars have come to the fore. The critically acclaimed French writer Michel Houellebecq published a lively if controversial volume, H. P. Lovecraft: Contre le monde, contre la vie (1991), contending (falsely to my mind) that Lovecraft’s racism is central to his world view and to his fiction; it was translated into English in 2005 as H. P. Lovecraft: Against the World, Against Life. Arkham House can take pride in the issuance of Peter Cannon’s superbly edited Lovecraft Remembered (1998), a virtually definitive collection of memoirs of Lovecraft. The Finnish scholar Timo Airaksinen has issued a dense but idiosyncratic study, The Philosophy of H. P. Lovecraft (1999), while Robert H. Waugh has gathered his Lovecraftian essays in The Monster in the Mirror: Looking for H. P. Lovecraft (2006). David E. Schultz and I wrote what we hope is a helpful reference work, An H. P. Lovecraft Encyclopedia (2001). Scholars in France (William Schnabel, Philippe Gindre), Italy (Pietro Guarriello, Lorenzo Mastropierro), and Germany (Marco Frenschkowski, Joachim Körber) continue to do outstanding work.

  But if Lovecraft criticism has to some extent lagged, the publication and dissemination of his work worldwide has reached levels that even the scholars of the 1970s could not have imagined. Shortly after the publication of H. P. Lovecraft: A Life (1996), I was approached by Penguin Books to prepare annotated editions of Lovecraft’s stories for Penguin Classics. Three such volumes appeared, in 1999, 2001, and 2004; nearly simultaneously, two volumes of The Annotated H. P. Lovecraft appeared from Dell in 1997 and 1999. The Penguin editions no doubt laid the groundwork for the epochal appearance of a volume of Lovecraft’s Tales in the Library of America in 2005—a volume that sold 25,000 copies within a few months. Lovecraft’s enshrinement in the American canon can be said to have become definitive with the publication of this book. While a few reviews (mostly in right-wing venues such as the New Criterion) continued to carp at Lovecraft in the manner of Edmund Wilson, the great majority of reviewers welcomed his ascent into the company of Melville, Fitzgerald, and Faulkner. Simultaneously, the Modern Library issued a slim volume of what it termed the “definitive” text of At the Mountains of Madness, along with “Supernatural Horror in Literature.” Ballantine/Del Rey has, of course, continued to issue both mass-market and trade paperbacks of Lovecraft’s work, the latter beginning with the egregiously subtitled The Best of H. P. Lovecraft: Bloodcurdling Tales of Horror and the Macabre (1982) and continuing to the present day; but unlike the Penguins or the Library of America edition, the Ballantine editions continue to reprint the corrupt Arkham House texts.

  Meanwhile, other bodies of Lovecraft’s work have appeared. My edition of The Ancient Track: Complete Poetical Works, originally scheduled for
publication by Necronomicon Press, was issued by Night Shade Books in 2001. I edited Lovecraft’s Collected Esssays (2004–06) in five volumes for Hippocampus Press.

  The last frontier in the publication of Lovecraft’s work is the issuance of his thousands of letters. While the Selected Letters was a prodigious enterprise, it quickly became clear to David E. Schultz—who had begun the electronic transcription of Lovecraft’s letters so early as 1990—and myself that the only sensible way to issue Lovecraft’s letters was to group them by individual correspondent. Necronomicon Press began such an undertaking by issuing the letters to Richard F. Searight (1992), Robert Bloch (1993), and others, but the project foundered soon thereafter. Schultz and I released two volumes of letters—Mysteries of Time and Spirit (2002) and Letters from New York (2005)—with Night Shade Books, along with two volumes—Letters to Rheinhart Kleiner (2003) and Letters to Alfred Galpin (2005)—with Hippocampuss Press; O Fortunate Floridian: H. P. Lovecraft’s Letters to R. H. Barlow appeared in 2007 from University of Tampa Press, which also issued a radically expanded and updated version of my bibliography of Lovecraft in 2009. We are now undertaking the ambitious programme of editing the entirety of Lovecraft’s correspondence, in an estimated twenty-five volumes, with Hippocampus; the first four volumes of this informal series, Essential Solitude: The Letters of H. P. Lovecraft and August Derleth and A Means to Freedom: The Letters of H. P. Lovecraft and Robert E. Howard, appeared in 2008 and 2009, respectively.

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