The Life of a Dreamer - 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

The Life of a Dreamer
H. P. Lovecraft and His Influence
Volume 2: The Twentieth and Twenty-first Centuries

Lovecraft’s life is of unusual relevance for the assessment of his work and influence, not only because his fiction is an intimate outgrowth of his life experience and general worldview, but because his wide-ranging correspondence allowed him to become the nexus of an entire generation of weird writers who carried his legacy into the decades that followed. Because of that immense body of surviving correspondence, Lovecraft’s life can be told in meticulous, almost painful detail; he is by far the most self-documented figure in the entire history of weird fiction. Only the bare outlines of his life can be told here.

Born in Providence, Rhode Island, where he spent all but a few years of his life, Howard Phillips Lovecraft came from a distinguished family (on his maternal side) that was in the throes of a genteel decline; on his father’s side, his ancestors were British immigrants, and to the end of his life Lovecraft clung to a devout Anglophilia. The early death of his father caused him to be raised chiefly by his mother and maternal grandfather; the death of the latter, in 1904, resulted in his departure from his beloved birthplace, resulting in a near-suicidal trauma. Lovecraft, highly sensitive, shy, introspective, and beset with physical and psychological maladies, had only a highly sporadic formal education, remedied by immense readings in his family library. He gained an early interest in both the sciences and in literature, and the former may be of even greater significance than the latter. Chemistry and astronomy were his early loves, and astronomy led to his adoption of a distinctively “cosmic” attitude:

The most powerful sensations of my existence are those of 1896, when I discovered the Hellenic world, and of 1902, when I discovered the myriad suns and worlds of infinite space. Sometimes I think the latter event the greater, for the grandeur of that growing conception of the universe still excites a thrill hardly to be duplicated… . By my thirteenth birthday, I was thoroughly impressed with man’s impermanence and insignificance, and by my seventeenth … I had formed in all essential particulars my present pessimistic cosmic views. (“A Confession of Unfaith” [CE 5.147])

Lovecraft later modified his “pessimism,” declaring himself an “indifferentist”: “Contrary to what you may assume, I am not a pessimist but an indifferentist—that is, I don’t make the mistake of thinking that the resultant of the natural forces ssurrounding and governing organic life will have any connexion with the wishes or tastes of any part of that organic life-process” (Selected Letters 3.39).

Lovecraft’s taste for the weird was also of early development, and he was writing stories as early as the age of six. By the age of eight he had discovered Poe, an author whose work permanently coloured his entire approach to weird fiction. Lovecraft ultimately came to have an encyclopaedic knowledge of the weird literature prior to his day, although he never found much value in the plethora of English ghost-story writers of the decades preceding him; instead, he seized upon the highly imaginative work of such writers as Ambrose Bierce, Lord Dunsany (both discovered in 1919), Arthur Machen (discovered in 1923), Algernon Blackwood (discovered in 1924), and others.

A kind of nervous breakdown caused Lovecraft to withdraw from high school in 1908; he failed to gain a diploma and go on to college, spending the next five years in virtual hermitry. By a series of accidents he discovered the little world of amateur journalism—a group of writers, chiefly in the United States and England, who wrote for and published humble magazines and distributed them to other members. Lovecraft joined both of the leading amateur organisations of the day: the United Amateur Press Association (UAPA) in 1914, and the National Amateur Press Association (NAPA) in 1917. It was just the right place for a diffident and reclusive figure to be: his undoubted literary talents could be appreciated by a sympathetic audience, and the camaraderie that the associations provided eventually drew Lovecraft out of his shell. He held several important offices in both the UAPA and the NAPA, and with the passage of time he began venturing out into the world.

His mature fiction-writing career began with “The Tomb” and “Dagon,” both written in 1917. (In this section, dates in parentheses indicate dates of writing, not publication.) Many of his early stories appeared in the amateur press, but with the founding of Weird Tales Lovecraft was encouraged by others to submit to it; his tales were readily accepted, and he quickly became a star contributor to the magazine. The great majority of his stories appeared in Weird Tales over the next decade and a half, although the magazine’s main editor, Farnsworth Wright, pained Lovecraft by rejecting some of his best work. Lovecraft refused to cater to the low standards of the pulp magazines, scoffing at Wright’s pleas to make his tales more in line with pulp convention; either they were to be published as written or not at all. It is this aesthetic integrity that, along with the immense talent he displayed in the writing of weird fiction, that has ensured his literary stature while consigning the hackneyed work of his contemporaries to merited oblivion.

The celebrity that Lovecraft achieved in Weird Tales allowed him to become the hub of an intricate network of friends and colleagues, including such writers as Frank Belknap Long (who first came into contact with Lovecraft in the amateur press, in 1920), August Derleth, Donald Wandrei, Robert E. Howard, Henry S. Whitehead, Robert Bloch, C. L. Moore, Fritz Leiber, and dozens of others. Lovecraft even became a ghostwriter of weird tales for would-be authors, such as Zealia Bishop and Hazel Heald; and some of these tales complement his own work, although they are generally inferior to it.

And yet, fame in Weird Tales did not translate into fame in the general literary world. Lovecraft never had a book of stories published in his lifetime, and his negotiations with leading publishers—Putnam’s, Vanguard, Knopf, and others—were pitiably unsuccessful. Aside from being a very poor marketer of his work (a legacy of his not entirely affected stance as an eighteenth-century gentleman), Lovecraft was already facing general prejudice by publishers against collections of short stories; and Knopf rejected him only when it failed to receive confirmation from Farnsworth Wright of Weird Tales that the magazine could sell a certain number of copies on its own. Wright appears to have been excessively cautious, but with the onset of the depression he seems to have felt he had no choice. In the end, only a single, wretchedly printed edition of The Shadow over Innsmouth (1936) emerged from a small press a few months before Lovecraft’s early death.

The history of Lovecraft’s posthumous literary resurrection is itself a weird tale full of bizarre features. August Derleth and Donald Wandrei were so fervent in their belief in Lovecraft’s greatness that they formed a publishing company, Arkham House, initially for the sole purpose of preserving Lovecraft’s work in hardcover. They quickly expanded their operations to include other writers, many of them from the pulps, and Arkham House long remained the leading specialty publisher of weird fiction. The early Arkham House editions were met with some praise and more than a little scorn—the latter emerging particularly from Edmund Wilson, who, as a devotee of social realism and disdainer of fantasy and the imagination (he thumbed his nose at Tolkien also), wrote a fiery review of various Lovecraft volumes in a 1945 issue of the New Yorker that seemed to constitute a kind of literary inhumation. But Lovecraft refused to fade away, and paperback editions of his work gained increasing popularity. By the 1960s his work was being adapted into film, and by the 1970s an explosion of paperback sales caused even the staid Time magazine to take notice of him in its 11 June 1973 issue. Around that time, a cadre of scholars (eventually including myself) began taking Lovecraft more seriously, and decades of work by these individuals resulted in Lovecraft’s slow ascent along the literary ladder, to the point that his work is now enshrined in editions by Penguin Classics and, preeminently, by a volume of Tales from the Library of America (2005). Decades after his death, Lovecraft has been canonised—and no one would be more startled by the development than himself.