The first part of a feature on the work of H. P. Lovecraft that originally appeared in Black Static #46:-
LOVECRAFT: THE MAN AND HIS MONSTERS
An obscure writer of stories that were published in the pulp magazines of the 1920/30s, of which the most significant was Weird Tales, when he died of cancer Howard Phillips Lovecraft (1890 – 1937) must surely have believed that his literary legacy would soon after follow him into the grave. But now, nearly eighty years later, Lovecraft is revered as the most prominent figure in the horror genre in the twentieth century, his influence seen in books and films, role playing games and music, with the likes of Joyce Carol Oates and Stephen King acclaiming him as one of the greatest practitioners of the horror story. It is virtually impossible to regard the horror genre in the opening years of this new millennium and not find the shadow of H. P. Lovecraft hanging over it: he is omnipresent. Lovecraft gifted us a new way of looking at the world, a secular vision in place of the then prevailing supernatural perspective. In Lovecraft’s schemata man is not the measure of all things, but an insignificant creature who lives on at the whim of much older and more powerful beings, entities who barely notice he exists.
And yet despite his undoubted contribution to the genre HPL remains a bone of contention, as with recent attempts to replace the Gahan Wilson sculpted bust of Lovecraft presented to World Fantasy Award winners with that of a more acceptable literary figure. The sad truth is that, despite all his learning and accomplishments, the creator of Cthulhu and all his nightmare brood, was to all intents and purposes a racist, with passages in both his fiction and the voluminous correspondence he undertook with other writers that to the modern ear reek of bigotry, pure and simple.
Paul Roland doesn’t duck the issue in new biography THE CURIOUS CASE OF H. P. LOVECRAFT (Plexus pb, 238pp, £14.99), identifying his subject’s racism, quoting chapter and verse. Nor does he allow Lovecraft the get out of gaol free card of context, arguing convincingly that even by the standards of his day the author’s views were extreme and unwarranted. But Roland recognises another sad truth: that good writing is not the prerogative of good people, however much we may wish that to be the case. And like others before him, such as Michel Houellebecq, he theorises that the author’s xenophobia may have been one of the driving forces behind Lovecraft’s fiction, part of the reason why his work had such power. Roland also allows that, while he might have adhered to a racist creed, like others to do so Lovecraft was inconsistent in his actions, marrying the Jewess Sonia Greene and befriending the Jewish poet Samuel Loveman.
Short and eminently readable, Roland’s biography takes us deep into the life of a remarkable but flawed and often contradictory man. The opening chapters look at his family history and the early, formative years of Lovecraft’s life in which he was especially blessed with a vivid imagination and ability to follow his literary inclinations, thanks to the good fortune of his grandfather. And then with that elder’s death Lovecraft was set on the slippery slope into poverty, so that at times he was living on cans of baked beans, supplementing his meagre income from writing by editing the work of far less talented writers. Roland details other aspects of Lovecraft’s nature – his love of travelling, his Anglophilia, his atheism and the interest in science that led him to secularise horror fiction, the antiquarian learning and love of literature that informed every part of his life, the constant battles against poverty and illness and feelings of inadequacy. And, though he doesn’t commit himself so far as to bring down the wrath of the Lovecraft establishment on his head, Roland briefly touches on potentially controversial ideas, as with suggesting that repressed homosexuality may have played a part in Lovecraft’s problems relating to women, that his social problems may have been down to undiagnosed Asperger’s Syndrome.
But, as you’d expect with any writer, The Curious Case is essentially a literary biography. As we move forward along our timeline Roland makes the writing central, giving us what he can of the genesis of each story that fell from Lovecraft’s pen, detailing the circumstances in which they were produced and the attendant publishing history, offering pointed criticism of each, showing us why Lovecraft was so special and why his legacy has endured, but never fearing to identify the flaws in the master’s work. Part of Lovecraft’s endurance is down to the fact that, when things like Facebook were pure science fiction if they were thought of at all, Lovecraft was a master of networking, corresponding with other writers, making suggestions and discussing ideas, and most significantly of all he allowed others to write their own stories using his creations, thus giving rise to the Cthulhu Mythos, even though its eventual shape owed more to his friend August Derleth than Lovecraft himself.
The book has a generous number of photos and as a final, sad note reproduces Lovecraft’s death certificate. It has an extensive bibliography, one that includes online sources, and also three invaluable appendices, giving us Lovecraft’s history of the Necronomicon, his thoughts on writing weird fiction, and Sonia Greene’s account of their doomed marriage and friendship. The only thing missing is an index, but that small complaint aside this is an eminently accessible account of the life of a fascinating and controversial figure.
Lovecraft’s work has been reproduced numerous times and in various formats. PS Publishing are the latest champion to enter the lists, releasing nine of HPL’s longest and most important works through their PS Pulps Library imprint. Six volumes have been published so far, with The Call of Cthulhu, The Colour Out of Space and The Whisperer in Darkness still to come. Regarding the books already out there, it’s hard to believe that any horror fan won’t already be familiar with the material, so I’ll concentrate my comments on the “extras” PS have brought to the table in their editions.
For starters, each volume comes with an introduction by pre-eminent Lovecraft critic and scholar S. T. Joshi, offering us his insights into the background to the work under consideration, its publishing history and legacy. And each volume is illustrated by renowned artist Pete Von Sholly, with a wealth of one and two page spreads in full colour accompanying the text and capturing the most essential elements of each story. Whether it’s in rendering the bleakness of an Antarctic landscape or portraying the cyclopean architecture of an alien city, delineating the beauty and wonder of a star strewn night sky or detailing the horror of some inhuman creature whose appearance defies all the laws of nature, Von Sholly seems equally adept. At times there is a monochromatic feel to the illustrations, but such is the depth of the artist’s palette that each colour schemata seems to have a prismatic quality to it, with shade and light used to stunning effect. And at other times the page erupts in a riot of colour with effects that at moments seem almost three dimensional, so that you expect something to leap out and grab you as you read. By turns minatory and dazzling, with the occasional touch of sly humour, Von Sholly gives us a masterclass in Lovecraft illustration. It’s probably wrong of me to pick favourites, but the double page spread in which Randolph Carter (The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath) encounters a clan of ghouls in a graveyard simply took my breath away, both for the unusual use of colour and shade, and for the sharpness of the images committed to the page. I’ve only seen the artwork via a PDF, and so can’t speak as to how the paintings reproduce in the books, but for many I suspect they alone will be sufficient reason to purchase these new editions.
THE DREAM-QUEST OF UNKNOWN KADATH (PS Publishing jhc, 160pp, £18) is set firmly in Lovecraft’s cosmology, with Nyarlathotep putting in a guest appearance and other names and places dropped into the story that will be familiar to the devotee, but to me this novella seems to have more in common with the genre of fantasy than the horror on which the author’s reputation rests. The protagonist is recurring character Randolph Carter, who has the power to enter other realms, the dreamlands, in his sleep. Here he does so in the hope of learning more of a marvellous city he has glimpsed in his dreams, the quest taking Carter to such places as Ulthar, Celephais, and the icy plateau of Leng, along the way fighting against and at the side of assorted monstrosities and allies. It is nothing less than a midnight tour of the depths and heights of Lovecraft’s imagination, and while you may have doubts about certain aspects of the story (I found the anthropomorphism of cats a bit hard to swallow, and some of the names given to monsters, such as zoogs, gugs and ghasts, seem totally off key especially coming from the man who coined such wonderful monikers as Nyarlathotep and Cthulhu) overall it is a vibrant, colourful tale of high adventure in which the action never seems to pause. Underlying all this sound and fury is a subtext about the things of real value, so that the final effect is somewhat like having read a cross between Calvino’s Invisible Cities and the orc battles in LotR. In addition to the supplementary material already mentioned there’s an afterword by Pete Von Sholly detailing his own love of HPL’s oeuvre, a voyage of discovery begun in childhood and transformed into a lifelong addiction, with the artist’s fan boy enthusiasm shining through each and every sentence.
In addition to Joshi’s introduction, THE DREAMS IN THE WITCH HOUSE (PS Publishing jhc, 88pp, £18) has a Foreword by director Stuart Gordon, discussing the appeal of the story for him personally and the difficulties he encountered while filming it for the TV series Masters of Horror. There’s also a fascinating and well-argued 1963 essay by the great Fritz Leiber in which he discusses the use of science in Lovecraft’s fiction and his relationship with the then burgeoning genre of science fiction, to what degree credibility mattered to him, with particular attention paid to the use of hyperspace travel in Dreams. The story itself has down at heel student Walter Gilman checking into a rundown boarding house and falling foul of the spirit of the witch who once lived there, Keziah Mason, and her familiar the odious Brown Jenkin. It’s a chilling tale, with hints of something very wrong woven into the narrative, some hideous discoveries, and incipient madness all part of the bill of fare. What makes it different from other stories of this type is that Keziah isn’t simply a malevolent spirit but in her unique way is a scientist of sorts, travelling to other dimensions and planets by means of her understanding of mathematics, something Gilman shares, even if she is a “the end justifies any means” kind of girl. At the heart of the story is the contrast between the sheer horror of much that takes place and the cosmic visions that are made possible as a result.
(TO BE CONTINUED)