Dissecting Lovecraft Part 1: Juvenile Racist Pagan Sleuth At Large

by Arthur B

OK, fine, let's pick apart the works of H.P. Lovecraft. This episode takes on his juvenile works.
A while back I wrote a string of Robert E. Howard articles which attracted a certain amount of complaining and griping from Howard fans, upset that I had written their hero off as a bigot whose bigotry was so thematically and structurally integral to his work that I can’t really recommend his work to anybody unless they were looking deeply into the history of the fantasy genre. One of the complaints raised was that I was condemning Howard whilst letting his pen-pal Howard Phillips Lovecraft (who I affectionately think of as “Creepy Howie”) off the hook for being just as offensive, if not more so.

Now, I’m a self-confessed Lovecraft fan, but I like to think I am not an uncritical one, and I honestly don’t think I was being uncritical in the previous articles. Nonetheless, I’ve been acutely aware that it’s been a while since I read Lovecraft. Over the years I like to think I have become more socially aware, particularly when it comes to issues of privilege and marginalisation, and perhaps some evidence for this process having happened is the way my assessment to texts I had previously uncritically loved have changed. Believe it or not, when I started my Conan article I didn’t intend it to be the brutal hatchet job it turned out to be; I genuinely expected that I would reread the stories, criticise the more egregious instances of bigotry, but also praise the stories which remained genuinely praiseworthy. I was surprised to just what extent I found the stories shockingly offensive; it’s like I was reading them with brand new eyes, finally taking onboard matters which I was only too happy to overlook for the sake of a fun adventure story in my younger years.

I’ve decided, then, to take a long hard look at Lovecraft’s work and see if I can still enjoy it decades down the line after I first read and loved it. In the interests of putting my cards on the table, I will say now that I remain a Lovecraft fan even after my re-read. Some of his stories are awful, but I’d always recognised them as being awful; other stories have faults that I now recognise more clearly. I’m certainly not about to give Lovecraft some sort of all clear or try to wade in on the conservative side of the debate about his likeness being used as the World Fantasy Award trophy. Lovecraft was certainly historically important to the fantasy genre as well as horror, but handing a bust of him to authors who he’d have derided on the basis of their race is manifestly inappropriate. Furthermore, as I understand it the main reason the original trophy was based on Lovecraft was that Lovecraftian fiction was the headline theme of the World Fantasy Convention where the first awards were given out; that being the case, it seems to me that there’s a very strong argument that the trophy should have a unique design each year anyway.

Nor do I intend to let Lovecraft off the hook using the tired-out old excuse of “he was a man of his times”. There were anti-racist arguments and movements in Lovecraft’s own time - he derides them here and there in his political writings - and Lovecraft’s bigotry was often shocking to his contemporaries and his friends, some of whom made the effort to call him on it. Likewise, the habit of citing his friendships with gay and Jewish people as proving he wasn’t a bigot doesn’t hold water either. Whether Lovecraft was even aware of his gay friends’ sexuality is an open question; as far as his Jewish friends go, it seems that Lovecraft is the sort of slightly hypocritical person who is more than willing to caricature a group in general and then make exceptions in individual cases.

Lovecraft is also noted for having a certain aristocratic courtesy about him by those who knew him; this made him pleasant to deal with by all accounts, but I also think that it is the exact sort of politeness which would prompt Lovecraft to moderate his views when in company. Let’s take his two most famous Jewish acquaintances - Sonia Greene, his ex-wife, and Samuel Loveman, a poet and very close friend of both Lovecraft and Greene. So perfectly did Lovecraft keep his antisemitic views (more than adequately documented elsewhere) from Loveman, that it was only after Lovecraft’s death that Loveman would learn about them from Greene. Loveman was so upset by what Greene had told him that he ended up burning much of his correspondence from Lovecraft, and given some of the opinions Lovecraft had about Jews I can’t really blame him.

That said, I admit immediately that I am not going to drag out each and every example of racism, elitism, classism, or general snobbery that Lovecraft indulges in; I will highlight enough examples to reiterate that Lovecraft expressed such attitudes almost constantly throughout his work, but the article would become even more turgid and burdensome than it is if I tried to get exhaustive with it.

Some may argue that this is unfair considering how much attention I gave Howard’s bigotry, but I absolutely intend to eviscerate Lovecraft each and every time his attitudes go from being the sort of intermittent background noise that you can’t ever entirely tune out from fiction hailing from times with different social attitudes to become a significant - or, as it does at times, even central theme of the story. This is exactly what I did in my Howard articles; it’s just that he makes those themes prominent all the time. Take the out the racial theories (cranky fringe nonsense even in their time, absolutely ridiculous now), random bigotry, and repetitive savagery-vs.-barbarism-vs.-civilisation conflict out of Howard, and what are you left with? Nothing but competent but hardly unique adventure fiction, with extensive doses of sex and violence which it isn’t hard to find from innumerable other authors today without having to engage with Howard’s more annoying or offensive habits as an author.

Conversely, Lovecraft paints with a broad thematic palette, drawing on ideas which extend well beyond the limitations of their author and accomplishing genuine breakthroughs in fiction writing which are oft-imitated, occasionally equalled, but rarely exceeded. Simply put, Lovecraft gives me an awful lot of different things to talk about, therefore I am going to talk about a whole bunch of different things, whereas Howard doesn’t give me very much to talk about once I am done slamming his bigotry; his Cimmerian worldbuilding is an unconvincing hodge-podge of real world cultures with the serial numbers filed off, and whilst he’s good at fight scenes, there isn’t much to analyse there beyond saying “Well, the fight’s good this time”.

(That does not, however, mean I have any complaint about anyone who doesn't find it worth their while engaging with Lovecraft. Although I can point to stories of his where, to my eyes at least, his bigotry really doesn't come into the picture to any significant extent, I can perfectly understand why even those works would be ruined for people by the awareness of how awful his opinions were and how often he worked them into other stories. If you have firmly decided you are not interested in Lovecraft, I'm certainly not going to insult you or waste both our time trying to convince you to give him a second chance.)

Another reason I think it is worth taking a look at Lovecraft, despite all that has been written about him by more competent hands, is that his shadow hangs heavy over the genres he wrote in and their associate fandoms; some of the conflicts and issues Lovecraft encountered in his membership of various amateur press associations would prefigure the sort of controversies that have plagued the geekosphere right up to the present day. Quite simply, anyone interested in the history of the fantasy and horror subgenres and the subcultures they have inspired needs to look at Lovecraft, for better or worse. In fact, in some of his attitudes Lovecraft is an exemplar of some of the more irritating habits of fandom - a sense of intellectual superiority, for instance, and a claim that appreciating one’s favoured genre fiction is a sign of a particularly excellent and sensitive aesthetic taste.

Ultimately, like Howard, Lovecraft is a part of genre history we have to own up to and understand to work out where he his influence continues to this day, and more crucially where that influence is detrimental instead of helpful.

Sources Used, What I Am Going To Focus On, and Plan of Attack

As far as authoritative sources on Lovecraft go, I have to loudly and firmly acknowledge the role of S.T. Joshi in making sure that definitive Lovecraft texts are available to all. Aside from there being a certain delicious irony in the major custodian of Lovecraft’s legacy these days being a first-generation Indian immigrant to the United States (it’s almost worth raising Lovecraft up from his essential salts, just for the look on his face when someone tells him), Joshi has done an absolutely superb job leading the charge in setting the record on Lovecraft straight.

Much as L. Sprague de Camp and Lin Carter’s editorial sway over Howard’s works pushed authentic Howard texts almost into obscurity, August Derleth’s tenure as editor and intellectual property dominator of Lovecraft’s work was replete with controversy - not least because Derleth was a sloppy editor and his intellectual property claims seem, on the face of the available evidence, to be completely unfounded. (Speaking of unfounded claims, Derleth also used his position as the major publisher of Lovecraft material as a bully pulpit to push his own idiosyncratic interpretation of Lovecraft's mythology - a conception which suffered from a near-total lack of textual support in Lovecraft's actual stories.)

Textual accuracy was not a great motivator during Derleth’s reign; some of Lovecraft’s stories suffered from editorial messing-about by Derleth after the fact, and most infamously of all Derleth tried to pass off a set of stories written by himself as Lovecraft works, when in fact they didn’t even really constitute collaborations but were written by Derleth out of whole cloth from ideas in Lovecraft’s Commonplace Book the notebook where he jotted down his ideas. (The major exception is The Lurker At the Threshold, a tiny proportion of which constitutes a miniscule fragment actually written by Lovecraft crowbarred in to fit the narrative Derleth had cooked up around it.)

In producing a definitive set of tidied-up and restored texts for Arkham House, S.T. Joshi did invaluable work in reversing most of these errors (though the spurious Derleth stories are still being sold in some quarters with Lovecraft’s name on them). Furthermore, Joshi has edited definitive collections of Lovecraft’s poetry and nonfiction writing, issued through Hippocampus Press, as well as providing important texts on Lovecraft scholarship. These include I Am Providence, the definitive two-volume uncut version of Joshi’s H.P. Lovecraft: A Life and the meatiest Lovecraft biography written to date (and maybe even written ever), and An H.P. Lovecraft Encyclopedia, written by Joshi in collaboration with David E. Schultz. I have used both I Am Providence and An H.P. Lovecraft Encyclopedia as sources for additional context.

There are various purveyors of texts by and about Lovecraft these days; Joshi’s name is usually a sign you are onto some of the higher-tier stuff. Indeed, now that Lovecraft is good and dead for decades, a large proportion of his output is now out-of-copyright the world over (with copyright lapsing in most jurisdictions in 2007, and US copyrights possibly having expired over due to issues with renewals). As a lot, many badly-edited, shoddy versions of Lovecraft’s stuff have been shat out by various fly-by-night sorts, especially on Kindle, so some care must be taken if you don’t want to get bilked.

I’m going to be talking about four major strands of Lovecraft’s work here: the stuff he produced under his own name (which I think of as his “core fiction”), the various “revisions” he produced (some of which genuinely were revisions of work by other authors, some of which were flat-out ghostwritten), his poetry, and his nonfiction writing. HPLovecraft.com offers electronic texts of all of Lovecraft’s fiction and revisions and a cross-section of his poetry and essays, but for those who want hard copies (and I prefer to have them for Lovecraft), here’s what I used.

As far as his core fiction goes, editions edited by S.T. Joshi are far and away the way to go, because you can be reasonably sure they have the corrected texts. Arkham House are the original sources for these, but their editions are expensive (and seem to have slipped out of print). Barnes & Noble did a nice hardbound volume of The Complete Fiction, which includes literally all Lovecraft’s core fiction, plus his juvenalia, plus a discarded and incomplete first draft of The Shadow Over Innsmouth, plus his landmark essay Supernatural Horror In Literature. In some editions, there’s also a rather nasty “plus”: a sack full of textual errors, distributed liberally throughout the book. Fortunately, recent reprints have corrected these, making this a definitive text. (You can discern the new version by the fact that it has a handsome purple ribbon bookmark, like a friendly, comforting tentacle waving at you saying “It’s alright, we fixed it.”) Alternatively, you can go for the three-volume set that Penguin Books put out of The Call of Cthulhu, The Thing On the Doorstep and The Dreams In the Witch-House; these are not as complete as The Complete Fiction, but the few stories they are missing are generally not especially significant pieces, and they are extensively annotated by Joshi.

For the purposes of this article, I got a nice new copy of The Complete Fiction as a treat for myself and for the sake of having all the main stories in a hard copy, and used my Penguins as a source for the annotations. It’s this material on which Lovecraft’s reputation rests, largely justifiably, so I will try to write at least something about each and everyone of these.

As for Lovecraft’s revisions, going for the corrected texts is especially recommended, especially since one story of major importance - The Mound - was fairly extensively truncated and messed-about with by Derleth. The first major collection of revisions was The Horror In the Museum from Arkham House, in later editions of which S.T. Joshi not only corrected and restored to the original texts but also tentatively identified them as “Primary Revisions”, wherein Lovecraft contributed especially extensively (sometimes to the point of pretty much just writing the story out of whole cloth and perhaps a very basic idea offered by his client) and “Secondary Revisions” (where Lovecraft has by and large limited himself to sprucing up the text and generally tidying up a story which remains mostly the work of its originator). Although Arkham House books are expensive, this one has a very reasonably-priced reprint from Ballantine-Del Rey which makes a tempting one-volume summation of Lovecraft’s revision work. (Note that Ballantine’s various other Lovecraft reprints vary on whether they include the corrected texts.) Carrol & Graf also issued a two-volume version of this collection under the titles The Horror In the Museum and The Loved Dead, but buyer beware - the first volume doesn’t have Joshi’s corrections. Alternatively, Arcane Wisdom have put out a two-volume set of the revisions under the titles The Crawling Chaos and Medusa’s Coil, which include extensive annotations from S.T. Joshi.

Unfortunately, neither of these sources is complete; there is no single source which compiles each and every one of Lovecraft’s revisions, and there isn’t likely to be one in the immediate future; because several of Lovecraft’s revision clients and other collaborators outlived him, their heirs have retained some intellectual property rights over the works in question, which has complicated the republication of the revisions. In particular, the family of C.M. Eddy Jr. has objected to several of his stories being characterised as being revised by Lovecraft, even though Joshi designated them as “secondary revisions” in The Horror In the Museum, and have used what leverage they have to obstruct reprints of the four Eddy stories in question. In addition, The Horror In the Museum misses some revisions which were either undiscovered (or not recognised as Lovecraft’s work) at the time it originally came out or published elsewhere in Arkham House’s output.

If you get The Horror In the Museum, these are the revisions you will be missing: Poetry and the Gods, The Thing In the Moonlight, The Hoard of the Wizard-Beast, The Slaying of the Monster, The Battle That Ended the Century, Collapsing Cosmoses, The Challenge From Beyond and In the Walls of Eryx. If instead you splash out for the annotated revisions two-volume set, you’ll be missing all the C.M. Eddy Jr. stories (Ashes, The Loved Dead, Deaf, Dumb and Blind and The Ghost-Eater), and you’ll still be missing The Thing In the Moonlight.

(Note that The Thing In the Moonlight is usually credited as a Lovecraft story, but it is in fact nothing of the sort - it’s text from a letter of his recounting one of his dreams, hacked about and published after Lovecraft’s death, with the result that it’s in the curious position of being someone else’s revision of a Lovecraft text rather than a Lovecraft revision of someone else’s text; I agree with its non-inclusion from The Complete Fiction, since it is spuriously presented as a standalone story, but due to its status as a sort of “reverse revision” I think it’s a natural shoe-in as an appendix for a truly definitive collection of revisions if it ever becomes possible to make one.)

For my part, I just went with my Ballantine-Del Rey edition of The Horror In the Museum, and on balance I would recommend that one; although it is missing a bunch of stories, I would say doesn’t actually miss any good stories, whereas missing out on the C.M. Eddy Jr. stuff would be a real shame. It does mean I’ll be missing out on the annotations, but since Joshi gives little discussions on all the stories in I Am Providence and his Encyclopedia I’m not going to lose sleep over that. Although some of Lovecraft’s revisions are essentially dispensable, others offer really significant additions to his body of work (remember, some of the “Primary Revisions” were basically flat-out ghostwritten by Lovecraft), so I will be trying to address each of them just as I am with the core stories.

It should be noted, of course, that the revisory work from Lovecraft we are aware of is probably only the tip of the iceberg. He spent two decades with such work as his only means of sustaining himself, after all, and some clients may have wanted firm discretion on what he did for them. We know, for instance, that Lovecraft worked on a whole bunch of text for Reverend David Van Bush; Bush was a hack specialising in self-help texts like The Law of Vibration and Its Use or The Power of Visualization - by and large utter garbage that Lovecraft absolutely hated working on - but we don't really know which bits of those texts have Lovecraft’s touch and which don’t, and even if we did know the odds are against it being anything worth reading.

Happily, collecting Lovecraft’s poetry is much easier: Joshi has exhaustively compiled it in The Ancient Track, the presently-definitive second edition of which is put out by Hippocampus Press. The extent of commentary I’m going to offer on Lovecraft’s poetry is going to very wildly across the course of our journey through his work, and will peter out almost entirely partway through, which rather reflects Lovecraft’s own poetry career; at one point in his life he considered himself a poet first and foremost, and indeed abandoned prose fiction altogether for nearly a decade to concentrate on his poems, but eventually he shifted gear back to fiction, at which point his poetic output largely peters out save for the occasional bit written as a personal joke or tribute between Lovecraft and his friends and family, a few other dribs and drabs as inspiration grabbed him, and a curious little outburst of poetic output surrounding the sonnet-cycle Fungi From Yuggoth.

His poems are… well, to call them “hit and miss” would imply a far greater balance of hits and misses than is accurate. The fact is, an awful lot of his poetry is miserably bad, and eventually Lovecraft himself came to realise this, writing self-deprecatingly in later life about how bad he was. His main problem, as we will see, was that at the time he was concentrating most determinedly on his poetry, he was locked into such a rigid and unyielding ideology about poetic form and structure and so dedicated to especially outdated, unfashionable, and clunky styles that much of what he produced was utter doggerel. That said, he did loosen up a little over the course of his life and, on shaking himself out of his Alexandrine heroics, occasionally produced work of a little more merit, and Fungi From Yuggoth is so replete with references to preceding and future stories by Lovecraft that it deserves especial attention.

Nonetheless, having read Lovecraft’s poetry in a sustained way for the first time as part of this project, I’ve come to the conclusion that the main contribution of his poetic work is less the poems Lovecraft actually produced and more what poetry gave to his prose style. Lovecraftian prose gets short shrift, and in some cases this is justified, but he does seem to have made a conscious attempt to use the sense of rhythm and scansion developed in his poetic work to give a certain flow to his prose; Joshi’s corrected texts in particular bring this out helpfully. Whilst I will not address each and every one of Lovecraft’s poems in this article series, I will discuss those which strike me as being especially significant, particularly during those phases in his career when Lovecraft put a heavy emphasis on his poems.

If you are interested in Lovecraft’s non-fiction writing, Hippocampus Press have got the definitive offering on that too - a five-volume compilation of Collected Essays on various subjects, yet again edited by Joshi. I would say that this stuff is even less central to Lovecraft’s work than his poetry, and for the most part it’s worth going after more for the insights it gives into Lovecraft and the social circles and spheres he interacted with than for their own merits. (The absolute best essay Lovecraft ever wrote, Supernatural Horror In Literature, is extensively available elsewhere - indeed, if you get The Complete Fiction you already have it.) As with the poems, I will refer to these as and when I get to one I find interesting, or where they provide an insight into a period of Lovecraft’s career that falls between his stints of fiction-writing, but I am not going to attempt to attempt some sort of exhaustive coverage.

For the purposes of writing this article, I read through Lovecraft’s work from the above outlined sources in chronological order, using the texts at HPLovecraft.com to fill in for those revisions I was missing. Then I read through I Am Providence and referred to the Encyclopedia to get a handle on the context in which the pieces were written and interesting factoids behind their composition; where I’ve dipped into other sources to substantiate assertions I’ve tried to credit them as and when this comes up.

I should emphasise that this article series does not constitute anything in the way of original, formal research on Lovecraft; if you are interested in that, you should go read I Am Providence yourself as a starting point, it’s really quite good. (And I'm not just saying that because Joshi and I seem to have entirely independently come to very similar conclusions on Robert E. Howard.) This is 75% about me offering my personal take on his work, 25% about doing a tour of his output pointing out which pieces I think are especially worthy of continued reading and wide recommendation, which I have severe reservations about, and which should be stuffed head-first into the toilet and ignored by anyone who isn't a completist.

Interesting Sources That I Haven’t Used and a Note On the So-Called “Cthulhu Mythos”

True Lovecraft fanatics delve into his extensive correspondence; five volumes of edited Selected Letters were put out by Arkham House, and various publishers have been working on getting out more unexpurgated collections of Lovecraft’s letters to particular people or in particular forums. Lovecraft was such a prolific pen-pal to such an interesting range of buddies that a complete collection of his entire letters would be a Herculean task to produce - Joshi and Hippocampus Press are working on putting out volumes of Lovecraft’s unabridged letters, arranged by correspondent, but this process is far from complete . Furthermore, trying to read his letters in chronological order along with his essays, poetry and fiction would have complicated this project to a point where it had stopped being fun (plus collecting all those volumes of his letters would have been astonishingly expensive), so I haven’t bothered. Given that I Am Providence is over 1000 pages long, I figure that any truly important detail from the letters would have been summarised there by Joshi at some point, or mentioned in Joshi’s various notes on Lovecraft’s stories in the Penguin books and his Encyclopedia. Wherever I refer to Lovecraft’s letters here, I am basically dependent on what quotes Joshi and others have chosen to mine and present from them.

Furthermore, I don’t see how bringing the letters into this would change anyone’s conclusions one way or another. Lovecraft was an eloquent and expressive enough writer that any significant point he wanted to make in his writing is made perfectly well in his stories, poetry and essays; going to his letters might give some insights into the man behind the words (in particular, they seem to portray a more relaxed, informal Lovecraft than comes across in the pieces he writes for wide distribution), but I submit that in most cases you are not going to come across some stunning revelation which completely recontextualises your impressions of a particular story or poem. We can pretty much judge him based on the material he presented for public consumption, not least because he was so hostile to the idea of changing up his style or ideas for the sake of commercial appeal that his publicly-expressed views in his fiction, poetry, and essays and his private views tended to be more or less consistent with each other.

Joshi, for his part, has expressed the opinion that Lovecraft’s letters may one day be seen as the true gems of his work. This, I think, constitutes wishful thinking. Lovecraft’s great mass of correspondence is doomed to be inaccessible to the great majority of readers, partly by dint of there simply being so much of it and partly due to a great swathe of it needing contextualisation through extensive biographical knowledge of his life (there are several points Joshi identifies where Lovecraft either misremembers or misrepresents the facts). I have never yet encountered anyone who has read Lovecraft’s letters but passed up on his fiction; indeed, I have never encountered anyone who was not led to Lovecraft’s letters from his fiction, which as the doorway to his work must inevitably be the most significant part of it since it is the component which will reach the most people.

(To take up a tangent: if I had one criticism of I Am Providence it is that Joshi, at points, seems to have contracted a sniff of Lovecraft’s intellectual elitism; there’s one point in I Am Providence where he declares that the modern use of “like” for “as if” or “as” is a misapplication, but attempts to correct this are “a lost cause thanks to the ignorance of the supposedly literate general public”. Unfortunately for Joshi, linguistic prescriptivism is precisely the sort of baseless superstition that Lovecraft did not support in life: if the general mass of the speakers of a language say “like” is a synonym for “as if”, it is so, and if you try to hold yourself to be better than the run of the mill simply because of your passionate adherence to a defunct linguistic distinction then that is textbook elitism, whether your name is Lovecraft or Joshi. Furthermore, Joshi often runs down the more populist forms of literature Lovecraft came to contact with, taking the position that Lovecraft was doing himself a mischief by rotting his mind with junk and letting it contaminate his writing, when arguably it is Lovecraft’s very fusion of highbrow philosophy with populist themes that makes him so significant.)

For obvious reasons, I am going to outright ignore Derleth’s “posthumous collaborations” with Lovecraft for the purposes of this article because they simply aren’t Lovecraft stories, or even collaborations or revisions. If you are curious about them, there’s a list here; if you get the novel The Lurker At the Threshold and the short story collection The Watchers Out of Time you’ll have them all, though some may question why you would ever want to. I might cover them in a future article, but it's likely to be less about rigorous examination of the texts as being of any particular deep interest and more about pointing and laughing.

I have also not used Daniel Harms’ A Cthulhu Mythos Encyclopedia for the purposes of this article. Joshi and Schultz’s H.P. Lovecraft Encyclopedia is useful mainly because it focuses more on biographical details of Lovecraft and details on his written output than on providing some sort of extensive encyclopedia of Lovecraft’s fictional realms, which is what Harms is going for with his volume (previous editions of which were called Encyclopedia Cthulhiana). Harms’ scope is actually broader than that because he tries to offer an extensive look at the “expanded universe” of the Cthulhu Mythos - that body of work produced by Lovecraft and others which uses ideas, entities, places, characters and objects borrowed from Lovecraft’s fiction and from the writings of other Lovecraftians. I personally prefer Lovecraft’s term for this - “Yog-Sothothery” - in particular because this reframes this less as some sort of coherent, consistent mythology (which Lovecraft very deliberately wasn’t going for) and more as a fun activity or literary game (which is how Lovecraft and his peers approached it).

I also have a lot of sympathy for S.T. Joshi’s stance that the Cthulhu Mythos is not so much a coherent, cohesive setting but a grab-bag of plot devices - people, places, books, entities and so on - available for Mythos writers to flag the fact that particular themes, amongst them a certain cosmic nihilism are to be the order of the day for the purposes of a particular story. You can even take it further and select your sources to spin your story in a particular way - borrowing from Ramsey Campbell, for instance, if you are interested in building on his particular thematic take, or borrowing from Lin Carter or Brian Lumley if you want to signal that you don't have the slightest shred of good taste.

Harms’ take on the whole business is a bit odd - he tries to suggest that Lovecraft’s imagined glimpses of fauns and nymphs when as a young child he made a little altar in the woods to the Greek gods were on some level more than just a child’s imagination, whilst being infuriatingly coy about what he actually thinks it was - and he also tries to argue that writers in the field should try to go for consistency and continuity between each others works, despite the fact that Lovecraft’s deliberate contradictions make such consistency completely impossible. Furthermore, I think that the proliferation of alternate takes on the Yog-Sothothery business is a welcome development - a restoration of the playful approach taken by Lovecraft and his circle when they were getting into this, in which Tsathoggua might be a nightmarishly evil terror when alluded to in Lovecraft and a weirdly endearingly sleepy and cuddly sort (if still perilous) when met in Clark Ashton Smith.

I’d even go so far as to credit Call of Cthulhu, the tabletop RPG, with encouraging a looser approach to canon in Lovecraftiana. As Harms himself notes, the RPG came out during an apparent lull in new Mythos writing, and in my view it did three important things. The first thing is that promoted a decidedly alternate interpretation of the Mythos, which broke definitively from Derleth’s canonical pronouncements (several of which had little-to-no precedent in Lovecraft), demonstrating that you could produce an internally self-consistent take on the Mythos without following Derleth’s lead. The second thing was to provide all the tools to put Derleth’s ideas back in if you wanted to. The third, and most important thing, was to encourage an environment in which individual referees, amateur scenario authors, and small publishers alike were able to come up with their own personal contributions to the game, and to offer their own take on the whole shebang as they did so. (Most successful tabletop RPGs have a certain amount of homebrew material produced for them as the inevitable by-product of play, but the Call of Cthulhu RPG community is particularly strong, productive, and diverse by my reckoning.)

These three factors - the breaking from Derleth, the refusal to insist on a centrally-mandated canon, and the encouragement of the fan community’s creativity - result in an important phenomenon: people’s take on the Cthulhu Mythos will vary greatly from gaming table to gaming table, and yet the sky does not fall despite this. In running a game, just as in writing fiction, internal consistency is more important than external consistency. The scenarios offered in the course of a campaign must be consistent with themselves, otherwise they become arbitrary, confusing, and pointless, losing any sense of verisimilitude or atmosphere; however, they do not have to be consistent with what other people are doing in other campaigns, or even previous campaigns played by the same gaming group.

Likewise, when writing a Mythos story, the only really important thing as far as continuity and consistency goes is that the story be consistent with itself. If it is specifically conceived as a sequel to a previous story - by the same author, by a different author, by Lovecraft himself - then by all means maintain rigorous factual consistency with that specific story. Otherwise, everything and anything is fair game as far as the facts are concerned - not least because the extent of Mythos writing has become so absurdly broad that attempting to remain consistent with even a fraction of the authors who have worked in that vein is an exercise in utter futility. Thanks to the efforts of various creative authors, the hobgoblin of little minds has been largely banished from the field, and I submit that the Call of Cthulhu RPG played its own small part in propagating this understanding. (Yes, there are people working with the RPG with a tiresomely slavish adherence to the publishers’ framework, but I would argue that by providing comparatively sparse seeds and allowing people to grow them in all sorts of different directions, Chaosium did more help than harm in this wise. John Tynes’ The Hastur Mythos, an essay circulated in various forms and most prominently featured as part of Pagan Publishing’s Delta Green: Countdown game supplement, is an excellent example of how contributors to the RPG community have offered up radical reimaginings of aspects of the Cthulhu Mythos).

Harms questions why people would use Mythos ideas and motifs if they are not going to be factually consistent with what has previously been established by them, but I would argue that this factual consistency was never a hallmark of Lovecraft’s Yog-Sothothery, and is a Derlethianism we are better off moving away from. More important than factual consistency, to my mind, is thematic consistency, something which a certain degree of factual consistency can help with but only to the extent that the facts used support the theme. Use Lovecraft’s ideas if you want nihilistic cosmic horror, or Clark Ashton Smith’s Hyperborean allusions if you want surreal sword and sorcery horror-fantasy, or even go to Brian Lumley if you want to draw on the themes and styles of his stories, but have a reason for going where you go. Cthulhu has become an overused figure these days, but I think he is useful to use in precisely two contexts: either when you are engaging with the themes Lovecraft was working with when he created Cthulhu, or when you are taking the comedy route of using Cthulhu in a deliberately inappropriately silly, cutesy way for the purpose of lols. (The main problem with the present overexposure of Cthulhu is that the balance is way over on the side of subverting the image, to the extent that sincere presentations of Cthulhu have the problem of overcoming the spoofs.)

Despite my issues with Harms’ approach, if you want an expansively cross-referenced overview of a cross-section of Yog-Sothothery (there is so much out there these days that nobody, not even Harms, could follow it all, and so much bad stuff out there that nobody should want to), Harms’ Encyclopedia is a pretty good resource. I particularly like the way Harms uses an in-universe perspective in compiling certain entries on especially contentious topics; for instance, whilst characters and entities from Brian Lumley’s Titus Crow novels are mentioned, Harms avoids going into especially extensive detail on the more, uh, idiosyncratic directions that novel series went in following The Burrowers Beneath.

For the purpose of this article series I will not be trying to draw a fine line between Cthulhu Mythos stories by Lovecraft and non-Mythos stories - not least because Lovecraft himself made no such distinction, arbitrarily shanghai-ing earlier stories into his morass of Yog-Sothothery by way of passing references here and there, though I will try to note here and there where Lovecraft originated ideas that got widely disseminated in others’ works, or where he picked up ideas from others, since the game of Yog-Sothothery became an increasingly prominent feature of his work over time.

Juvenile Jottings

Lovecraft started young on his chosen pursuits, his interest in poetry having been encouraged by his parents since he was a toddler. One of Lovecraft’s earliest memories was of his father teaching him to recite Read’s Sheridan’s Ride; Winfield Lovecraft was otherwise often away on business in Lovecraft’s early years, and in April 1893 was hospitalised with what was most likely severe neurosyphillis, eventually dying in July 1898.

On Winfield’s hospitalisation, Lovecraft and his mother Susie went home to his maternal grandfather Whipple Phillips’ home, Whipple providing both paternally affection and an environment of fiscal security and home stability that Lovecraft would remember fondly later on. Lovecraft strongly recalls a “black, windowless attic room” containing various 18th Century books which were greatly influential on him; it was surely these, and not some sort of strange displacement in time, which were surely the cause of him adopting so many 18th Century affectations in his private writing later on in life. After an early diet of Grimm’s Fairy Tales, Lovecraft latched onto the Arabian Nights, sparking off a fit of childhood Orientalism paralleled in similar fascinations of the young Clark Ashton Smith, who would be one of Lovecraft’s most important partners in Yog-Sothothery. For a period, the personality of Abdul Alhazred, author of the Necronomicon displaced Lovecraft’s entirely, and it was shortly after this that he began to be visited and tormented in dreams by the creatures he would dub the night-gaunts, examined in some detail in The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath; the night-gaunts would be regular visitors to Lovecraft for the next few years.

Lovecraft’s first surviving writings survive from a slightly later phase of his childhood, when after the personality of Abdul Alhazred receded (along with his interest in the Islamic world) Lovecraft became acquainted with Greco-Roman mythology. A little light Classics exercise for a 7 year old Lovecraft survives in the form of The Poem of Ulysses, a synopsis of the Odyssey in poetic form which is, if he didn’t have help with it, really remarkably good for a child his age; by 1900, he was undertaking little translation projects using sources like Ovid’s Metamorphoses. Lovecraft’s fascination and personal identification with Ancient Rome would endure for decades, possibly because it was an interest which he shared with his grandfather; Whipple would make a point of sending back photographs of Roman ruins taken on a trip to Italy, in which Lovecraft sensed an “anomalous familiarity” which we must surely brush off as a childish fancy and definitely, absolutely not evidence of some sort of Roman entity purporting to be “L. Valerius Messala” joining Abdul Alhazred in Lovecraft’s childhood subconscious (perhaps conveyed and imprisoned there through the action of night-gaunts).

Nor must we put too much stock in Lovecraft’s accounts of how, during this time, he made a little altar in the woods and called out to the Greco-Roman deities, and was with rewarded with momentary glimpses of satyrs and nymphs observing his activities. Surely he was not being checked up on by supernatural agencies; surely Daniel Harms goes too far to suggest that these were anything other than a young child’s imagination playing tricks on him. A more serious consideration must be given to Lovecraft describing how he didn’t have much sympathy for Christianity at this young age - that he thought the Romans were fools to have allowed the masses to adopt an invasive foreign faith. The combination of antisemitism, xenophobia, and elitism involved in these sentiments would become ugly recurring themes in Lovecraft’s subsequent thought, as would his wholesale rejection of Christianity as an archaic superstition.

Lovecraft’s early Classically-themed poetic attempts are actually kind of passable (save for the odd blunder like trying to rhyme “liquid sky” and “gravity”), and from a stylistic point of view the very young Lovecraft was actually better at poetry than prose. So far as I can make out, the structures and cadences of poetry gave him a framework to use to piece his thoughts together, to the point where Joshi has noted that Lovecraft used the form of The Rime of the Ancient Mariner (a copy of which with Gustav Dore illustrations made a very great impression of him) in his rewrite of the Odyssey.

Where you can borrow the framework of a poem to make passable poetry, it’s much harder to repurpose prose to the same extent. Thus, his early prose stories are endearingly incoherent in an Axe Cop sort of a way. The Little Glass Bottle is the tale of a sea captain who is trolled into a pointless journey by a nautical prankster. The main deficit of the story, setting aside the rather simplistic prose style (which is fair enough for a child of 7 or 8) is the fact that more or less no actual hardship or inconvenience is caused in chasing up the fake treasure map, so the impact of the prank isn't what it could have been. Then again, it's a story that could comfortably fit on two sides of a piece of paper, so maybe there were space constraints involved.

Subsequent to this, Lovecraft must have learned adjectives, which would be his steadfast companions and faithful minions for the rest of his literary career. In The Secret Cave, 10 year old John Lee and his sister Alice find a secret cave under their house with a boat in it containing treasure; unfortunately for them, the cave fills tidally, so when the tide comes in it is flooded and whilst John survives to clamber into the boat Alice drowns, and John has to float out of there with her corpse in the boat next to him. Lovecraft makes sure to tell us that this was “gruesome & uncanny”, and it sure is, in the way that the imaginations of 8 year olds too little to realise how callous they are being can be. This, like The Little Glass Bottle, seems to have been written after young Lovecraft’s tiny mind was blown by his discovery of Edgar Allen Poe’s work; Joshi claims to detect nothing of Poe in it, but though it isn’t stylistically very Poe-esque I think the sheer morbidity in the image of John lying in that boat with his dead infant sister’s cold, drowned corpse next to him suggests a deliberate foray into gruesomeness that seems consistent with a kid who wants to write something worthy of Poe but hasn’t analysed Poe’s style closely enough to mimic it convincingly.

8-year-old Lovecraft’s magnum opus was the micro-epic The Mystery of the Grave-Yard, a take on the action-packed “dime novels” of the day. Its plot is delightfully absurd, centring on frankly unlikely kidnapping plan which involves the kidnapping victim being kept in a brightly lit and palatial apartment under a cemetery - a gambit which would surely be so costly that the criminals would probably have been better off just not bothering and keeping the money they would have otherwise spent on the prison. (The Secret of the Grave is a title attributed to a lost juvenile story from around this time, and I wonder whether that may have been another take on the same subject - or even an alternate or misremembered title for The Mystery of the Grave-Yard.) As we shall see, graveyards would become a recurring motif in Lovecraft’s fiction - perhaps predictably for a horror writer, but Lovecraft would feel a particular affinity for the places, haunting them and tracking down historically notable ones.

Mystery of the Grave-Yard also incorporates the best character in Lovecraft’s canon, an incredible fictional creation whose absence from Lovecraft’s later work is an absolute crime. I speak, of course, of King John, “western detective”, who makes a habit of bursting into the room with pistols in both hands like Yosemite Sam. (He may well be the protagonist of another lost story from this era - John, the Detective - assuming that, again, that isn’t an alternate title for this story.) One new factor introduced here which would make unwelcome returns in Lovecraft’s later work was his honest to goodness racism, in a scene where King John hires a “Negro hackman” (think a taxi driver only the taxi is a horse) to take him to Kent for the sum of a dollar and the gentleman in question responds with dialect ripped direct from a minstrel show until John raises his price to two dollars. (Weirdly, though, John arrests the criminals in the name of the Queen. Is this supposed to take place in Canada or something, or is this an early instance of Lovecraft’s contrarian affinity for the British side in the Revolutionary War?) Brashly, young Lovecraft assigns a price of 25 cents to the piece, an admirable bit of grift which sets the cost at two and a half times the price of an actual time novel. Notably, Lovecraft set the price of The Secret of the Grave at 25 cents too, another quarter in the scales suggesting that that was an alternate title for the story..

1902’s The Mysterious Ship purports to be issued by the Royal Press; this is not the case. Two versions exist - a first draft and a second draft, telling essentially the same story: pirates sail around in a submarine kidnapping people for no reason, pirates get stopped and kidnapped people are sent home, ‘nuff said. Lovecraft includes some “Natives” from Madagascar who not only get more dialogue than anyone else in the story, but actually speak the Queen’s English like sophisticated gentlemen. Would that Lovecraft had extended such faith in the basic intellectual capacity of fellow humans from other ethnicities in the future....

Meanwhile, Lovecraft was keeping his hand in with his poetry; 1901 would see a poetic travelogue prefiguring his later interest in travel writing (H. Lovecraft’s Attempted Journey Between Providence & Fall River On the N.Y.N.H. & H.R.R., showing a precocious talent for ponderous titles and snottiness about “the vulgar rabble”), and his stint of reconstructionist neopaganism and sense of being born in the wrong century would yield in 1902 two volumes of Poemata Minora in tribute to the Roman era and religion he was so keen on, only the latter of which has survived. The reprint in The Ancient Tracks omits the accompanying illustrations, including an astonishingly antisemitic caricature.

Also in 1902, he’d start in on a new contrarian stance which combined snubbing his Yankee roots and surroundings and being generally racist and offensive in one shitty position: namely, he decided that the Confederate States of America should have won the Civil War, and composed the poem CSA: 1861-1865: To the Starry Cross of the SOUTH in tribute to it. This was not a mere private rumination; Lovecraft admitted in a letter to Rheinhart Kleiner that he left the poem on the desk of Abbie A. Hathaway, the principal of his elementary school, whose father had fought on the Union side. This is an action which can only be interpreted as being intended at best as a pro-Confederacy protest on Lovecraft's part, at worst as a spiteful insult motivated by hate.

Three years later he’d double down on this with De Triumpho Naturae, a poem expressing keen approval of the hyper-racist tract The Colour Line: A Brief In Behalf of the Unborn; the poem summarises the book’s central argument that black people should never have been released from slavery because they’re too degenerate to enjoy freedom and are just going to drive themselves to extinction through vice. Joshi points out that the scientific refutation of racism was only just gathering speed at the time, whilst conceding that by 1930 Lovecraft should have surely picked up on it, but he seems to have consistently failed to do so. For my part, I am inclined to think that Lovecraft was sufficiently motivated when it came to educating himself on scientific matters that it seems incomprehensible that this new scientific understanding passed him by unless he was pointedly and deliberately making an effort not to acknowledge it, a strikingly hypocritical exception to his usual rule of scientific curiosity and claimed dedication to the truth above all else.

Right at the same time as he was writing his first short stories and getting deep into his homebrewed neopaganism, the young Lovecraft was developing an extensive interest in science, though he would ultimately be thwarted in pursuing an academic career in the sciences because he couldn’t master the mathematical skills required. From the age of about 8 to his early teens, he’d get quite into chemistry (though much of his juvenile notes on chemistry from the time are not published due to the complexities of reproducing them in a way which gets across their particular character), and he’d also built a home-made weather station, but from his teenage years onwards his great interest in the scientific sphere would be astronomy (a fascination which would feed into his fiction a great deal). He would churn out a great deal of little home-made papers on various topics, but based on the few pieces from this early era of Lovecraft’s science writing reproduced in Collected Essays, many of these don’t do much beyond compiling salient facts about the subjects addressed - in other words, they’re glorified revision notes.

Perhaps one of the most significant points Lovecraft took from his early science reading was his personal sense of priorities. The facts of life surrounding sex left him disgusted with the subject, and he never seems to have had very much interest in it, considering it a tawdry matter beneath him and of minor importance compared to the contemplation of profound mysteries. He would firmly express this, with a sniff of his characteristic racism, in a debate with Rheinhart Kleiner, who took the position that eroticism is pretty important in its own way: Lovecraft’s response was that “The primal savage or ape merely looks about his native forest to find a mate; the exalted Aryan should life his eyes to the worlds of space and consider his relation to infinity!!”

From time to time people have tried to portray Lovecraft as a repressed homosexual, but the evidence for this is rather thin; he had several gay friends and occasionally stayed at their houses as a house guest, but then again he stayed with his aunts for much of his life and we don’t generally assume he was banging them. I think you could make a better case for Lovecraft being somewhere on the asexual spectrum. (Sonia Greene reports that he was good enough in bed, but she also says that she always had to initiate things herself; Lovecraft would hardly be the last asexual person who engaged in sexual activity with a non-ace partner.) The upshot of this is that Lovecraft’s original stories are, with the occasional odd exception, more or less sexless even by the standards of the time and don’t really give any space for romance whatsoever; occasionally in his revisions he’d be obliged to include a romantic subplot due to it being part of the original story concept presented by his client, and he’d usually make a complete hash of it.

A bit later in childhood, Lovecraft developed a keen interest in detective fiction; although he’d encountered the peripheries of the stuff through the dime novels that informed the creation of King John, it would be around now that he would devour all the Sherlock Holmes stories, and with his similarly sleuth-happy school friends formed a play-detective agency. This was more involved than a momentary bout of Let’s Pretend; members of the group carried an extensive range of props, and they’d use a derelict house in town to mock up crime scenes for crimes they would then go through solving in what sounds an awful lot like a primitive form of LARPing.

Unfortunately, a bout of detective fiction Lovecraft wrote around this time has not survived; one plot he describes, in which a man kills his brother (who he closely resembles) and tries to live a double life both as himself and as his victim, puts me in mind of The Talented Mr. Ripley. Given Lovecraft’s aspirations to literary credibility and his extreme distaste in adulthood for writing in a style calculated to gain mass appeal, I think it’s quite likely that these detective stories were among the juvenile yarns Lovecraft deliberately destroyed on the grounds that he didn’t think they were any good, especially if they were more pieces in the dime novel style.

That said, his playing at sleuthing and his composition of detective stories seem to have had some influence on his later fiction; whilst in maturity he never wrote a “straight” detective story, the attention paid to the gathering and interpretation of evidence in pieces like The Whisperer In Darkness or The Case of Charles Dexter Ward is reminiscent both of a scientific appreciation of what different clues genuinely confirm and what they merely suggest and, in addition, a detective fiction writer’s knack for choosing what information to place before the reader at what point in time. (Pulp genre crossover trivia time: Lovecraft’s The Music of Erich Zann would impress Dashiell Hammett so much that Hammett included it in a horror short story compilation he was editing.)

In addition, between the LARPing and his earlier interest in playing through little scenarios with miniatures and scenery, it seems like despite Lovecraft claiming to dislike most games in adulthood, he wouldn’t have entirely been displeased with inspiring the Call of Cthulhu tabletop RPG and various live-action games following its lead, since such games revolve around an investigative-focused mode of play which it sounds like Lovecraft would have found appealing.

It’s well that Lovecraft had these hobbies to distract him from the gradual unravelling of his home life. Whipple Phillips’ business interests seem to have been slowly going to seed towards the end of his life; one by one, all the servants were let go, and Whipple’s death in 1904 came in the midst of a crisis in his business interests which his surviving partners badly botched, leaving the family in severely depleted circumstances. Lovecraft’s horribly named pet cat Nigger-Man even vanished in the same year, reappearing only in fictional form in The Rats In the Walls nearly two decades later. Having to move into a smaller house from Whipple’s expansive home must have been the crystallised-tears icing on 1904’s misery cake for the boy; Lovecraft would later report, apparently with some seriousness, that he contemplated suicide at the time.

Lovecraft’s extant fiction next picks up with The Beast In the Cave, written when he was just shy of 15 and in the wake of a series of setbacks in his family life - Whipple Phillips died in 1904 in the midst of a crisis in his business affairs which his surviving partners badly botched, leaving the family finances severely impacted, Lovecraft and Susie had to move into a smaller home with no servants, and his pet cat Nigger-Man ran away (probably because he was offended by his name). This series of downers may account for the gloomy atmosphere of the story, which shows a remarkable level of development over his earlier works. Lovecraft may well by this point have gained the patience to work on and revise a story after knocking out a first draft, and he even shows something of a command of pacing, something entirely absent in his earlier stories.

The Beast In the Cave spins a yarn about a guy who gets lost in the titular cave and makes a horrible discovery, and unlike in The Secret Cave there's no treasure involved this time. There's even something of a backstory involved, the connection between the titular beast and the horrible fate of a colony of consumptives who’d thought that living in the cave would help their breathing being implied but not directly stated.

The presented theme of human degeneracy is one that Lovecraft would often turn to racist ends, but the iteration in this story entirely unobjectionable, since the reduction to an animalistic state here arises from the “beast” being left isolated for a startling period of time in the adverse and ill-omened environment of the cave itself. Subterranean settlements, often associated with some form of sinister degeneration that almost seems to come from a baleful influence in the underground realm itself, would become regular features of Lovecraft’s later work, with particularly significant appearances in The Nameless City and The Mound. Also notable is the fact that the “beast” is at one point referred to as a “thing”; it would become a regular habit of Lovecraft’s later fiction to use the term “thing” to refer obliquely either to a corpse or to a human being who has become deformed or injured to an especially dire extent. The concept of transitioning from a person into a mere object on death, and the related idea of some torments being so extreme as to render the victim alienated from the rest of humanity which has not suffered or committed a comparable atrocity, are both much more interesting takes on themes of degeneracy and dehumanisation than simple racist elitism, and whilst we may wish that Lovecraft had taken that tack a bit more often, he would do so often enough that it would inform some of his better work.

Also, in stark contrast to manly man of action King John, our hero here (perhaps inspired by Lovecraft’s avid reading of Poe) is much more psychologically vulnerable than you'd expect for the hero of an adventure story like this, breaking down in a fit of crying at the feet of his rescuer. By this point Lovecraft had already had several nervous breakdowns, interrupting his formal schooling, and perhaps this left him inclined to write fiction about people who are mentally vulnerable and badly affected by the things they encounter. Some readers dislike this - Brian Lumley, for instance, has stated that he prefers writing about protagonists with a bit more grit - but I for one find it in many respects a more realistic depiction of human behaviour than the he-man macho superheroics of the more unflappable action heroes.

Lovecraft’s first appearance in print before an audience broader than his family and friends was not, alas, an action-packed tale of King John, or even the precocious Beast In the Cave, but a short and to-the-point letter to the Providence Sunday Journal in 1906 on two related subjects dear to his heart: his appreciation of astronomy, and his contempt for astrology. (Specifically, he was pointing out that a previously published letter from an astrologer talked about the “transit of Mars” - which would imply that Mars was going to pass between Earth and the Sun, which is of course impossible barring a catastrophe of Velikovsky-like proportions.)

Perhaps emboldened by this, Lovecraft would start writing letters to more publications - including a note to Scientific American pushing the idea of searching for trans-Neptunian planets, and another note to the Providence Sunday Journal debunking the idea of the Hollow Earth - and by the end of the year Lovecraft would have two part-time sidelines going penning astronomy articles for the Pawtuxet Valley Gleaner (discontinued when the paper went out of business) and the Providence Tribune (which continued until 1908 - presumably being derailed by Lovecraft’s nervous breakdown of that year).

Lovecraft’s juvenile newspaper columns range between dry summaries of upcoming celestial events and articles on topics of general interest like the possibility of life on other worlds, undiscovered planets, and travel to the Moon. The Gleaner articles led to a hilarious anecdote from Lovecraft’s high school days, when he submitted an essay on travel to the Moon and his teacher objected to it because she had read the Gleaner article Lovecraft had recycled it from and accused him of plagiarism: Lovecraft greatly relished producing the article in question, with his name on the byline.

The Alchemist, written when Lovecraft was 18, brings in a note of the supernatural (though the twist is eminently predictable to anyone who knows even a little about alchemy) along with a bunch of motifs that would feature a lot in subsequent fiction. The protagonist's origins, raised all by himself in a rambling castle turned to ruin in a forested region, is highly reminiscent of The Outsider, and the mildly autobiographical conceit of a scion of a once-wealthy family living on constrained circumstances due to successive generations being bad at the whole money thing would pop up here and there too - as would protagonists who aren't too uptight to admit that they fainted dead away on witnessing some horror, or family curses passed down through the generations.

Despite a slightly campy, overdramatic ending, The Alchemist is really quite good, capping Lovecraft’s juvenilia with a piece of genuine merit. In fact, though he was a bit shy about having it published, it formed the basis of Lovecraft’s credentials when he joined the United Amateur Press Association some years later, as I’ll explore in the next article. Unfortunately, 1908 would also see Lovecraft suffering a serious breakdown - derailing his school career, shutting down his hopes of attending university, and almost entirely bringing his writing to an abrupt stop. When he began his gradual re-emergence from the cocoon of the hermit-like existence he adopted for the next few years, it was as a poet, not as a writer of stories; Lovecraft would not return to prose fiction for almost a decade.

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Comments (go to latest)
Bill at 12:41 on 2016-09-05
Do you know the Library of America edition of Lovecraft's selected fiction, edited by Peter Straub? Any good?
Arthur B at 13:52 on 2016-09-05
I have not had direct experience of it.

Apparently it uses the Joshi texts, so it's fine on that part. But to my eye it looks a bit expensive compared to just getting the Complete Fiction or the Penguin volumes, which means you end up getting less stories for more money.

The story selection is decent enough, though I'd query some bits. Missing out The Tomb ignores a very important bit of his development as a writer, and Herbert West - Reanimator and The Horror at Red Hook could happily have been cut to make room for better stuff. It also seems to miss out just about all of his Dunsany-inspired bits.

So as well as being incomplete, it doesn't quite fit the bill as far as a true "best of" collection goes, and on the flipside it doesn't quite provide a rounded, complete view of his work as a writer. It looks to me like it falls between two stools a bit and seems a little redundant, serving more or less solely to give Lovecraft a bit of kudos in the literary world (though the three volumes of his in Penguin Classics tick that box just fine).
sotrain515 at 18:04 on 2016-09-07
Hey Arthur, great read!

Minor correction: Lovecraft's dad's name wasn't "Winifred" (which is a feminine name I believe) but rather "Winfield" -- Winfield Scott Lovecraft, presumably named for Old Fuss and Feathers himself!
Arthur B at 18:40 on 2016-09-07
Ooops - thanks for catching, I have corrected.
Shim at 22:42 on 2016-09-15
Nice article. I like the comments on how his writing style slowly coalesces over time.

I hadn't previously considered how Lovecraft's really quite unusual childhood pastimes and literary background would have shaped his mindset. Based on the (fairly superficial) amount I know about his later life, on reflection it does seem as though maybe he tended to generalise from himself more strongly than many other adults. Perhaps a habit of thought formed in a quite lonely childhood, when this usually gets broken down through socialising?

This might tie into his difficulty in coping with people of different backgrounds and mindsets - most notable in his New York years of course. But it occurs to me it could also relate to his writing; a lot of the horrific elements in stories are things he personally found awful, which sometimes means he's able to evoke atmosphere by drawing on things I can suspend disbelief for, and sometimes... not.

Or something. I'm tired.
Arthur B at 08:56 on 2016-09-16
Based on the (fairly superficial) amount I know about his later life, on reflection it does seem as though maybe he tended to generalise from himself more strongly than many other adults.

Possibly - although on balance I think it's less a matter of that than of him not being interested in generalising at all and much more invested in arguing his own corner, as well as having a really low opinion of his own ability to adapt to new circumstances and aesthetics. In later life he basically admitted that he clung to a lot of his attitudes basically because they were what the culture he grew up in had offered, and seemed to feel that if he let go of that he'd be entirely lost.
Robinson L at 15:00 on 2016-10-06
I just want to say I'm really glad you're doing this Arthur, and not just because I've gotten a kick out of the Howard, Moorcock, and Dick articles. I never got into Lovecraft, and I've been of two mind about reading his works for a while. A number of things have held me back: first that, with rare exceptions (Conan Doyle, and some of Wilkie Collins) I have a very difficult time engaging with literature written before, oh, the 1960s or 70s; not entirely sure why, but I think part of it has to do with characterization, which I understand was not one of Lovecraft's strong points anyway. So that's two strikes against him already, and the horror genre has never particularly appealed to me anyway. Not to mention a general aversion to downbeat endings. And all of that is before we factor in the racism, elitism, and other repugnant social attitudes, which, yeah, is another big turn off.

And yet …

it is Lovecraft’s very fusion of highbrow philosophy with populist themes that makes him so significant.

This really, really appeals to me. I like playing around with highbrow philosophical concepts, and I like fun adventure stories, so blending the two is an idea I find highly interesting.

Moreover, while I've never read any Lovecraft, I have read and watched stories which incorporated significant elements of Yog-Sothothery, often to incredibly good effect. There's something about the aesthetic which resonates with me. I think it's the sense that there's a great big universe out there, and our own human understanding of it is as minuscule as an ant's understanding of the Large Hadron Collider. (The difference being that while Lovecraft found this prospect a source of terror and nihilism, I find it a cause for awe and wonder.)

So having an entertaining overview of Lovecraft's body of works with recommendations from a reviewer whose opinion I already hold in high regard should help me sort out which stories I'm actually interested in checking out, and potentially tweak my curiosity enough to prompt me to read some of them.

So thank you again, Arthur. I'm looking forward to the series.
Arthur B at 16:01 on 2016-10-06
The difference being that while Lovecraft found this prospect a source of terror and nihilism, I find it a cause for awe and wonder.

I think the artistically interesting paradox in Lovecraft is that he actually found it a source of awe and wonder as well, but also saw that not everyone would see it the same way. Terror and nihilism he applied to everything, even more so to human-scale matters like culture and politics, but awe and wonder he saved for the otherworldly.
Robinson L at 22:30 on 2016-10-15
Even more fascinating. I apply awe and wonder to pretty much every area I engage with, but terror and, if not nihilism, deep cynicism I save for culture and politics. (ptolemaeus recently accused me of being more jaded than anyone alive, or words to that effect, when I referred to Edward Snowden as being naive.)

But in terms of Lovecraft, given what you’ve written about his youthful enthusiasm for astronomy, I suppose that makes sense, and it reinforces my feeling that reading the better Lovecraft cosmic stories would be a good idea for me.
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