Lovecraft and the Pulps - H. P. Lovecraft and His Influence - Volume 2: The Twentieth and Twenty-first Centuries

Unutterable Horror - A History of Supernatural Fiction - S. T. Joshi 2014

Lovecraft and the Pulps
H. P. Lovecraft and His Influence
Volume 2: The Twentieth and Twenty-first Centuries

Just as Edgar Allan Poe is the central figure in the history and development of weird fiction in the nineteenth century, so H. P. Lovecraft (1890—1937) is—or, more precisely, has become—the dominant figure in twentieth-century weird fiction. This circumstance would have surprised no one more than Lovecraft himself, for in his excessively unworldly and humble way he resolutely denied any merit to his tales except that of “sincerity” (“Some Notes on a Nonentity”; CE 5.210) and felt that he worked in the shadow of such of his admired predecessors as Poe, Bierce, Machen, Dunsany, and Blackwood. But a case could easily be made that his intensity of vision, his prodigiously bizarre imagination, and his immense influence on the work that followed him places him at the very pinnacle of the entire genre of weird fiction; his only viable rivals would be Poe himself, Blackwood, and Ramsey Campbell.

But Lovecraft’s emergence as a weird writer cannot be separated from the rise of the pulp magazines in the decades before, during, and after his time. There is a pungent irony in Lovecraft’s very association with the pulps—notably Weird Tales—since he himself, as something of a literary snob who boasted of his classical learning, resolutely asserted his status as a gentleman-author who wrote only for the love of writing and who relentlessly (and accurately) condemned most pulp writing as subliterate rubbish, but was compelled to publish in the pulps because of very specific and timebound market conditions that prevented his work from being deemed acceptable to more mainstream markets. That Lovecraft was then, both during and after his lifetime, held in disdain precisely because of his appearance in the pulps only heightened the irony.

The history of pulp magazines—usually costing anywhere from a dime to a quarter, and therefore accessible to the pocketbooks of the working class—is highly involved, but its roots can be traced to 1882, when Frank A. Munsey launched the Golden Argosy (later the Argosy) as the first all-fiction magazine. He later established numerous other fiction magazines, and his chief claim to fame resides in his discovery of Edgar Rice Burroughs, whose first Mars novel (Under the Moons of Mars) and first Tarzan novel (Tarzan of the Apes) both appeared in 1912. By that time, Street & Smith had gotten into the act with Popular Magazine, and other publishers contributed their own ventures.

It was in the pulps that the genres as we know them—the western, the horror story, the detective story, the love story, the science fiction tale—all became viable forms of popular writing. Each of these genres has a history—and often a distinguished history in “high” literature (such as Henry James’s ghost story The Turn of the Screw, the “scientific romances” of H. G. Wells, and so on)—that extends well before the pulps of the early twentieth century, but it was the pulps that lent them widespread popularity among the masses. Indeed, it was exactly at this time that mainstream or “slick” magazines tended to banish genre fiction (particularly the horror, detective, and science fiction tale) from its pages, except when written by especially eminent authors. The end result was the ghettoisation of these genres for decades; even today certain snobbish critics still disdain this work on principle. To be sure, much of the writing in the pulps was very poor and deserves permanent inhumation, but given the difficulty of selling work to other venues, such now canonical writers as Lovecraft, Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, Arthur C. Clarke, and Ray Bradbury had little option but to appear in its pages.

This period—roughly the first half of the twentieth century—constituted the first occasion in which, in both the United States and Europe, a mass audience for entertainment products existed; and it was, somewhat fortuitously, the same time that other modes of mass entertainment aside from printed matter emerged—the radio, the movie, popular music (including the musical drama), and later television. The result, as far as the economics of the entertainment industry (of which books, even bestsellers, constituted a relatively small portion) was concerned, was inevitable: media outlets began a wholesale shift in their output to cater to the relatively crude and ill-formed tastes of the mass public. What else could they do? That was where the money was. In sheer numbers, the mass audience dwarfed the now tiny elite of the educated to such a degree that the latter were rendered insignificant as consumers. Lovecraft saw this at first hand, as he wrote to a colleague in early 1937:

Bourgois capitalism gave artistic excellence & sincerity a death-blow by enthroning cheap amusement-value at the expense of that intrinsic excellence which only cultivated, non-acquisitive persons of assured position can enjoy. The determinant market for written, pictorial, musical, dramatic, decorative, architectural, & other heretofore aesthetic material ceased to be a small circle of truly educated persons, but became a substantially larger (even with a vast proportion of society starved & crushed into a sodden, inarticulate helplessness through commercial & commercial-satellitic greed & callousness) circle of mixed origin numerically dominated by crude, half-educated clods whose systematically perverted ideals (worship of low cunning, material acquisition, cheap comfort & smoothness, worldly success, ostentation, speed, intrinsic magnitude, surface glitter, &c.) prevented them from ever achieving the tastes and perspectives of the gentlefolk whose dress & speech & external manners they so assiduously mimicked. This herd of acquisitive boors brought up from the shop & the counting-house a complete set of artificial attitudes, oversimplifications, & mawkish sentimentalities which no sincere art or literature could gratify—& they so outnumbered the remaining educated gentlefolk that most of the purveying agencies became at once reoriented to them. Literature & art lost most of their market; & writing, painting, drama, &c. became engulfed more & more in the domain of amusement enterprises. (Selected Letters 5.397—98)

This assessment may be a trifle harsh, but in essentials it is largely valid. The plain fact is that even those who have received college educations are rarely taught to make the fundamental critical distinctions that would allow them to sort the wheat from the chaff when it comes to art—the original from the hackneyed, the distinctive from the trite, the sincere from the calculated, and so on.

In terms of the weird tale, it is a still unanswered question whether the emergence of the pulps caused mainstream magazines to scorn weird fiction (except by the most celebrated of authors, such as Dunsany or Blackwood) or whether the departure of weird fiction from mainstream magazines led to or fostered the development of the pulps. There is no question that the simultaneous dominance of literary modernism (T. S. Eliot, James Joyce, D. H. Lawrence) and the development of the novel of social realism (Theodore Dreiser, Sinclair Lewis, Arnold Bennett) resulted in a general disdain among mainstream readers and critics for the incursion of fantasy or the supernatural within a literary work; some of these writers did delve into the weird as a sideline, but only sporadically. The upshot was that, for someone like Lovecraft, the pulp magazines—notably Weird Tales, founded in 1923 and lasting an incredible thirty-one years, finally folding in 1954—were the only viable venues for his fiction.

Pulp fiction, like other forms of popular fiction, is rightly scorned because it tended to foster the cheapest literary techniques: wooden and stereotyped characterisation, artificial cliffhanger endings to chapters, a generally overheated and excessive use of action and incident, flat, mundane prose that is easily digestible by the simple-minded reader, and so forth. Only a tiny proportion of writers were able to overcome these jejune conventions to produce genuine literature—and Lovecraft, for his part, quickly found that his evolving conceptions of the nature and purpose of weird fiction were so far beyond what was considered acceptable to pulp markets that he suffered painful rejections of exactly those tales that today are regarded as his greatest contributions to literature.