The Art of H. P. Lovecraft


Szerző: James Russell • Dátum: 2003-04-14

No man but a blockhead ever wrote except for money.—Dr Samuel Johnson  


I’ve often wondered what H.P. Lovecraft would’ve made of the later work of his protege Robert Bloch, who was a regular correspondent during the final three or four years of Lovecraft’s life. Whereas Lovecraft’s later stories forged his own synthesis of traditional fantasy/horror with more modern science fiction and laid the foundations for a new subgenre of horror (i.e. the „Cthulhu Mythos” story), Bloch’s 1958 book Psycho played a significant part in changing the direction of the whole horror genre, taking emphasis away from the supernatural and putting it on the natural, making man the monster instead of merely the monster’s victim. Certainly EC Comics had been doing a similar thing for years before that, and Alfred Hitchcock’s film possibly had more actual effect than the book itself, but Bloch still deserves some credit.  

It would be futile to ask, however, whether or not Lovecraft would have approved of these developments had he lived to see them, because the answer would almost certainly have been a resounding negative. That Lovecraft took a very dim view of the conventional horror fiction of his own day is undeniable, and I find little reason to suppose he would look more favourably upon modern exponents of the genre such as Stephen King, Brian Lumley or Clive Barker. They would be too conventional and, more to the point, too commercial according to Lovecraft’s views.  

Lovecraft’s opinions of the commercial weird fiction and pulp magazines of his day were generally and famously low, even though by his own admission he had been a regular reader of popular magazines such as the Argosy, the All-Story and the Black Mask since at least 1905 (or maybe that just gave him enough experience to be able to justify his opinions). As has been noted elsewhere, his 1926 history of weird fiction Supernatural Horror In Literature omits all reference to the pulps and their authors, and Clark Ashton Smith was the only pulp author he deemed fit to include in his survey (omitting the pulp connection, naturally). In his later years Lovecraft would bemoan the pulps for having ruined his literary style (echoing the judgement of companies such as Street & Smith and Putnam’s who asked to see his stories with a view to publishing a collection of them, then declined on the grounds that Lovecraft’s work had too much of the pulp flavour) and also the style of several other promising beginners, including his own friends and correspondents Frank Belknap Long and E. Hoffman Price.  

This might be interpreted by the uncharitable as biting the hand that (at least partly) fed him, since it was pulp magazines like Weird Tales who provided his only professional outlet during his life for his own fiction. But we shouldn’t really accuse him in this way, I suppose, since his own anti-commercial attitude would probably not have let him say anything else. Although it may be out of fashion in some critical circles, at least since the death of the author was first announced, to give consideration to what the intentions of the recently deceased author may have been in regards to their own work, I feel it might be worth looking at this attitude, considering where it stemmed from and how it influenced his aesthetics, how he viewed his own work and its purpose, and also perhaps how we should view it.  

The roots of Lovecraft’s anti-commercial tendencies may be traced at least in part to his heritage. Since his parents were of good English and New England stock and had a reasonable income, young Howard’s various childhood interests (chemistry, astronomy, the Arabian Nights, „New Anvik”?the name of two model villages built by Lovecraft and school friends in the early 1900s, inspired by a series of children’s books by Kirk Monroe?et al) were indulged with some freedom. Even when, following the death of his grandfather in 1904 and the absence of his mother from 1919 until her death in 1921, the money to indulge these interests was not there to the same extent as before, he still had that „gentleman” image to maintain. And, as L. Sprague de Camp says in his biography of Lovecraft, the traditional function of the gentleman is to be rather than to do?especially to do things for money. Heaven forbid that a gentleman should be so crass as to accept money for services rendered, etc etc. He emphatically disagreed with the dictum of Dr Johnson cited at the head of this piece. Consequently Lovecraft was left in a fairly hopeless situation in later years when money was tight; having never been forced to seek regular paid employment when he was younger, he had an infinitely harder time finding it when he needed it during his New York period.  

His initiation into the world of amateur journalism may have been an equally if not more decisive factor. The story of Lovecraft’s rescue from a life of wasteful reclusiveness after being discovered by Edward F. Daas of the United Amateur Press Association should be well enough known by now without my having to repeat it in detail here. Consider what might have happened, however, had Daas been a professional publisher who thought Lovecraft had potential. (The Lovecraft verse letters called „Ad Criticos” that Daas would have seen in the Argosy are indeed amusing specimens, so his interest is understandable.) Perhaps Lovecraft may have turned down the professional path much earlier than he did had this been the case. But it wasn’t and he didn’t, so perhaps such speculation is useless.  

At any rate, Lovecraft was already well attuned to the spirit of amateur journalism, having produced hand-written and hectographed journals and treatises since he was about eight or nine. Having officially enrolled with the UAPA, this was what he continued to do, with the crucial difference that he now also gave works of his to others for them to publish. When he began to write fiction again in 1917 following his nine-year absence from it, he donated them in similar fashion. He was not remunerated for any of these since they were amateur publications after all, but the amateur field did provide him with his first paid revision clients, and this revisory work remained his main source of income. His first professional fiction commissions (Herbert West?Reanimator in 1921, and The Lurking Fear in 1922) also came from within amateur circles, when George J. Houtain decided to attempt a professional magazine called Home Brew. Not until 1923, according to Will Murray, did Lovecraft write a story off his own bat but with a view to professional publication in mind (the story in question being „The Rats in the Walls”, which he first submitted to the Argosy). So the amateur field provided him with a decisive and long-lasting influence, especially regarding his attitudes towards the professional pulps. Whether that influence was for good or evil is probably something best left to the judgement of the individual.  

Enter Weird Tales at last, with Lovecraft finally securing a regular professional outlet for his work, though his feelings for the magazine were somewhat mixed. He seems to have gotten along splendidly with the magazine’s publisher J.C. Henneberger and first editor Edwin Baird, who basically printed whatever Lovecraft would give him. Unfortunately for Lovecraft, the magazine began to struggle in 1924 and Baird was replaced by Farnsworth Wright (who had apparently been a member of UAPA when Lovecraft had been its official editor; even at Weird Tales Lovecraft couldn’t quite escape the amateur element), with whom Lovecraft had distinctly cooler relations. Wright was famously fond of rejecting stories on their first submission with a request for revisions, then asking for a second look and then buying them. If he did not accept a story on the first go, however, Lovecraft did not often give Wright this second chance.  

Relations grew more strained following Wright’s rejection of At the Mountains of Madness in 1931. Lovecraft became increasingly reluctant to submit new works to Weird Tales (although works ghost-written for others such as Hazel Heald and William Lumley were bought by Wright), yet there were few other options available at the time in the professional weird fiction field (Amazing Stories had paid Lovecraft so absurdly little for „The Colour Out of Space” in 1927 that he never considered them again, and he was horrified by the editorial hatchet job performed on AtMoM by Astounding Stories in 1936). So between 1933 and 1935 we see Lovecraft submitting a few items again to non-paying magazines, three stories written in the early 1920s that he had not previously managed to land elsewhere.  

Of course, if Lovecraft were a professionally-minded author he would have written and submitted many more things than he did; and for all his grumblings that Wright would not accept any of his new longer stories, the latter’s purchase of „The Thing on the Doorstep” in 1936 proved that he would buy Lovecraft’s stories if only he would submit them („Thing” was written in 1933; Lovecraft seems not to have bothered to sell it anywhere in that time). But Lovecraft was not professionally-minded, with the amateur attitude having gained the ascendancy long ago over any commercial tendencies he may have had. Certainly, as S.T. Joshi notes, „he never became a ‘pulp writer’ in the sense of mechanically grinding out reams of hackwork for money”, and Lovecraft always tried to promote himself as one who wrote only when inspiration (as well as revision duties and health) permitted. (Cf. his letter to Alvin Perry in Selected Letters V: „The one thing I never do is sit down & seize a pen with the deliberate intention of writing a story? The only stories I write are those whose central idea, pictures, & moods occur to me spontaneously?”) The Will Murray article cited earlier attempts to present Lovecraft as having been somewhat more calculating than that, but Lovecraft’s own genteel and basically „amateur” self-image will probably still endure nonetheless.  

Lovecraft’s aesthetic standards basically adhered to classical, canonical and conventional divisions between „high” and „low” art, and also to the usual notions of „taste” (with his own „gentlemanly” breeding and heritage playing an undeniably strong part in the development of these standards). A 1935 letter certainly demonstrates that latter proposition, defining art as „anything which brings the sense (enjoyment) of universal truth and harmony to any representative number of generally high-grade and properly educated people” (emphasis by Lovecraft). The genuineness of a work of art is therefore something that can be tested and measured by a suitably qualified observer, with the experience and appreciation of art thereby being limited to a select few. There’s a word for this sort of attitude, and it is snobbery. Not a pretty word but no less true for its unattractiveness, at least in my estimation. Unfortunately traces of this sort of thinking still linger; vide S.T. Joshi’s characterisation of the Argosy’s readers as „so pathetically ill-educated that they could not even begin to make the fundamental critical distinction between a story that they happened to like and a story that had genuine literary substance.”  

Traditionally, weird fiction (and its modern names of fantasy, science fiction and horror) has never been held in vast critical esteem according to accepted literary standards, and Lovecraft’s valorisation of it formed his great deviation from the „literary” orthodoxy of his day, though he still seems to have regarded it as somewhat inferior to realist non-fantastic fiction in a way; vide his comments praising August Derleth for being able to straddle both sides of the divide, producing pulp hackwork to order and serious „artistic” realist works like Place of Hawks or Evening In Spring with apparently equal ease. To take one example from a 1936 letter: „So far, I’ve never seen anybody but Derleth ride both horses at once with any degree of success.”  

Still, he had high critical expectations of weird fiction; though the genre may have been treated as beneath contempt by many other critics, Lovecraft still applied the standard principles of criticism to it, drawing lines between the good and the bad. By these standards, of course, the biggest majority of what Weird Tales and the other pulps printed fell into the latter category. If anything Lovecraft considered to be superior rose from above the general morass, these above average specimens had to be exceptions. That Clark Ashton Smith’s stories were constantly rejected by Weird Tales was suitable proof of their excellence. His condemnation of the pulps extended as well to their target audience; no doubt he would not have disagreed with the quote from Joshi cited above if his various printed statements are anything to go by.  

In all of these critical judgements we can see Lovecraft’s amateur and anti-commercial attitude in operation. Writing in 1924 (a year after his professional entrée with Weird Tales) he said bluntly, „He who strives to produce saleable fiction is lost as an artist”; twelve years later, and equally bluntly, he says „What is valued & insisted upon by commercial editors is precisely what has no place in authentic literary expression? The one effect of commerce on the writer is to make him stop trying to write good stuff & begin trying to tailor trash to order in conformity with some cheap & anti-artistic formula.” If an author’s natural mode of expression should coincide with commercial requirements, as he believed to be the case with Robert E. Howard, then that was fortunate. But as a rule, according to Lovecraft, commercial influences were bad news and overtly commercial fiction was virtually a sin. To come back to my introductory example, he would certainly have considered Bloch’s success with Psycho and the successes of Messrs King, Lumley, Barker and whichever other big name modern horror writer you may wish to nominate as sellouts to commercial interests.  

What, then, did the authentically artistic weird tale consist of for Lovecraft, other than an absence of overt concessions to populism? This question is answered easily enough, since Lovecraft left us with enough clues. Above all other considerations, the depiction of a certain mood rather than of action was paramount. Almost as important was his demand for realism, which perhaps sounds a peculiar thing to demand of a story rooted in the unreal, but Lovecraft believed the unreal should be presented as realistically as actual things. A partial list of other important factors in the Lovecraft aesthetic would include an absence or at least minimisation of dialogue and overt humour and comedy, a detached and objective style of telling the story, non-reliance on stock horror elements such as ghosts, werewolves, vampires, etc., and an avoidance of self-consciousness and mannerisms. And let’s not forget the cosmic perspective either.  

This is evidently not a complete list, but even such a partial survey of what Lovecraft looked for in the works of other writers should perhaps give us some idea of what he accordingly wanted his own work to be. How successful he was in achieving his aims is, again, perhaps best left to the individual’s judgement, though I personally think he did a pretty good job most of the time. Nonetheless I think it goes without saying that Lovecraft would have preferred to think of himself as following in the footsteps of the masters of the weird genre (Poe, Dunsany, Bierce, Machen, James, etc.), rather than the grubbier and lower-grade tracks of the commercial weird writers. Although by the end of his life he was roundly denouncing almost everything he’d written and expressed a sense of failure in himself as an artist („I simply lack whatever it is that enables a real artist to convey his mood”), we can be fairly sure that his original and continuing intention as a writer was to be an artist rather than a mere entertainer.  

Now, over six decades after his death, this is how Lovecraft is being appreciated, as a literary artist. He is held up as a Great and Important Writer (capitals used advisedly), his stories dissected for traces of autobiography and influences from and parallels to other Great Writers, such as Nathaniel Hawthorne, James Joyce, W.B. Yeats, Edward Arlington Robinson or Guy de Maupassant (to name a few). Books and biographies abound, from scholarly academic dissertations to simpler fan writings. If Lovecraft were unimportant, surely August Derleth and Donald Wandrei would never have bothered forming Arkham House in 1939 to ensure the hardback book publication of his stories, nor would they have kept him continually in print for sixty years, nor would S.T. Joshi have been commissioned in the 1980s to produce the definitive corrected texts of the said stories, nor would Joshi and Peter Cannon have produced two (so far) annotated paperback editions of the stories in the 1990s (i.e The Annotated H.P. Lovecraft and More Annotated H.P. Lovecraft [Dell Publishing 1997 and 1999]. The spines of the two books rather ominously classify their contents as „literature”?and let’s face it, there’s nothing more scholarly and academic than a welter of footnotes; At the Mountains of Madness in the first volume contains over 230 of them). All of this would have been an unfeasible and absurd expenditure of effort on a writer if he were not important. I myself would surely never have gone to the effort, as I have done in the past, of spending 2˝ months on writing a 33,000-word essay on all of Lovecraft’s stories. And Penguin are finally publishing a selection of his stories in their 20th Century Classics line, which must mean Lovecraft has indeed officially arrived as a Great and Important Writer.  

Still, though Lovecraft may indeed have been leagues ahead of most of his Weird Tales compatriots as a writer, and may have set out with loftier aspirations than most of them, he was still essentially in the same commercial boat as they were. He may not have been a „professional” or „commercial” writer as such, but it was still in the commercial pulp field rather than any of the serious literary magazines that most of his work made its first appearance; even those stories which debuted in amateur magazines would usually see later print in the pulps. Lovecraft may indeed have found a place among the serious literary writers of the 20th century, but he has as important a place within the purely popular sphere, and this is something we should perhaps not forget this fact while we’re busy trying to posthumously elevate him beyond it. If we want to look for the „art” in H.P. Lovecraft?and yes, I do believe it is there?then this is probably where we should go looking for it.  

As it is, we currently live in a more relativistic, cultural studies-influenced world where we seem to have grown somewhat suspicious of the old divisions between high and low art. Or rather, though something of the old antithesis of art vs entertainment remains, we’ve come to a point where we can treat the latter in the same way as if it were the former, and where previously „low” forms of art and popular culture in all its manifestations are suddenly fit for serious academic appraisal. We’ve seen this sort of thing happen before in the world of cinema, when the critics of the French magazine Cahiers du Cinéma unleashed their politique de l’auteur on the world in the 1950s. Though John Ford or Alfred Hitchcock made films within the Hollywood industrial system, the politique made it possible for them to be considered as artists rather than condemned as hacks as they would otherwise have been. In similar fashion has Lovecraft been elevated in more recent years, and again we can probably thank (or blame) the French for it.  

Personally I wonder just how much the academic dissection of Lovecraft that we now see so often actually helps. By which I mean, what does it actually do to our understanding, appreciation and enjoyment of the works? Is the influence it has upon us for better or for worse? After all, surely the ideal task of all criticism is to aid one’s understanding of a work of art so that one appreciates it more (with the worst case scenario here being that perhaps one’s enjoyment of the work is lessened). I find much of the critical writing interesting, to be sure, but I’m not always sure just how much my enjoyment of a given story is enhanced by it. For example, I don’t know if it really helps to know that the plot of „The Dunwich Horror” was basically knocked off from Arthur Machen’s „Great God Pan”. I enjoyed the story before I knew that, and I don’t think it enhances my enjoyment. Then again, I think I did appreciate the story a little more for considering some of the autobiographical references in it. Not an easy thing to predict, obviously.  

I have this terrible fear that everything I’ve been saying will be treated as somewhat self-evident, old hat, overly obvious or otherwise unnecessary by more seasoned Lovecraft fans and scholars. Still, I think the things I’ve said (or said again) are worth remembering, especially that the literary sphere in which Lovecraft operated was a popular one and that we should perhaps not lose sight of this fact while we’re trying to rescue him from his popularity and make a Great Writer of him. And since Lovecraft himself professed to hate few things more than the „man of letters”, perhaps we should be more circumspect about trying to make him one.  

Of course, none of what I’ve said should be interpreted as some sort of radical call to abandon the academic study of Lovecraft, or that his works are somehow not fit for serious consideration. Far from it. I think Lovecraft has left the world with a rather splendid fictional legacy with a rich level of potential for interpretation and exegesis; how else would the whole field of Lovecraft studies have persisted for as long as it has were that not the case? And Messrs King, Lumley and Barker may be commercial writers as Lovecraft was, but none of them has had the influence and effect on my overall philosophical outlook as Lovecraft has. That he was a Great Writer within his genre is hardly worth denying any more, so perhaps it’s more worthwhile considering him from that perspective rather than trying to pull him out of it and dropping him into more auspicious company where his position is somewhat more tenuous.  

Anyway, who says Lovecraft has to be a Great Writer? However great Joseph Conrad may be, Heart of Darkness threatened to choke me. It may be great literature and I may be able to connect with it intellectually, but I don’t enjoy it so I choose not to read it. And if I didn’t enjoy Lovecraft’s stories then it wouldn’t matter how great he was because I would never read him. Perhaps Dave Carson put the case for Lovecraft as popular artist most succinctly and splendidly at a fantasy/horror convention in 1983; as a number of speakers described the deep and meaningful reasons for their own enjoyment of Lovecraft, Carson interrupted: „Fuck all that. I love H.P. Lovecraft because I just like drawing monsters.”


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