Review of H. P. Lovecraft: A Life by S. T. Joshi (Necronomicon Press, 1996)

(Part 2)

This section meanders through the quizzical, opinionated and polemical concerning my own reactions to parts of the biography. *** Contrary to the biography's view, L need not have been consciously misleading about his father's illness. Perhaps he never did know the truth, and simply repeated what he had been told. *** L's supposedly egregious negligence of his health--and so of physicians--becomes more comprehensible upon the consideration that his mother died from an operation. *** I stated several years back that Susie's overprotectiveness, so far as L on a bicycle was concerned, can be better understood by the steepness of the hills in this neighborhood. A child on a bicycle could be put at hazard. Even if this were not the case, it is problematical to generalize from one or two anecdotes that Susie was always overprotective. I wish there had been several examples. At times Susie is treated as though she were the arch-demon in some cockeyed mythos. She is berated for Athe severe emotional crippling inflicted upon@ L (651)--but why could she not have instilled within him some virtues as well? Here the biography reflects the conventional view that an individual overcomes environmental handicaps by some mystical wherewithal of being. *** The book occasionally presents subtle details that require a broad scope of references. For example (19), it is shown AAbdul Alhazred@ is a reduplication (Aul@ and Aal@ both signifying Athe@). I have heard English has swallowed similar constructions in both Athe Sahara Desert@ (i.e., Athe the desert desert@) and Athe hoi polloi@ (i.e., Athe the many@). Another worthwhile digression is a brief background on simplified spelling (107), since L was interested in the topic. Mr. Joshi shows that others, such as George Bernard Shaw, were of the same mind. (One practitioner was the founder of the Dewey decimal classification, who changed his name from AMelville Dewey@ to AMelvil Dui.@ Only the first name stuck.) *** L's preference for paganism over the siren of Christianity caused him to be Aisolated from his fellows@ (49). A purpose of religion is to create a community of belief, and since L regarded himself as an outsider, a loner, he was less likely to be a believer, whatever his outlook. *** At the age of fourteen L was contemplating suicide (60). As he did with the subject of L and unemployment (355), I wish Mr. Joshi had added some mitigating information. I imagine that as it was then, today suicide is a leading cause of death among teenagers, and so L's attitude may have been representative. His reason for not killing himself was his Ascientific curiosity and a sense of world drama,@ which is called Aa defining moment@ (60). (Albert Einstein said, AI have no special talent, but I am passionately curious.@ Such men live for their mind.) Like a circumstantial foreshadowing of Robert E. Howard's demise, the death of Susie prompted L's veiled reference to the fact suicide now was possible. Mr Joshi dryly notes, AEvidently his aunts did not figure much in this equation@ (256). Samuel Loveman's claim that L at one point carried a phial of poison around with him to kill himself is labeled Apreposterous@ (388). Curiously, Loveman has elsewhere remarked that he had prevented Hart Crane from jumping off a roof. *** Although L may never have read any writers of the Harlem Renaissance (71), he did at least see Paul Robeson in a Eugene O'Neill play, so his record is not completely blank. *** The investigation of how glands control human behavior (486) resembles a nod to the archaic theory of humors, whose balance accomplished the same end. *** In stating L only wrote two weird stories in three years, Mr. Joshi observes ABut to measure Lovecraft solely on his weird output would be an injustice both to the man and the writer@ (478). However, his artistic contributions are what make him significant; and if L were not an artist would his life be worth a biography? *** From the Grimm fairy tales of his youth L moved on to racial fairy tales. The biography treats the manifestation of racism with intelligence and keeps it in reasonable proportion (132, etc.). As with Derleth's Some Notes on H. P. Lovecraft (p. vi-vii), the biography finds a root of L's racism in his objection to change. For example, AThe Street@ is interpreted as evidence of L's racism, but it is also related, as both Derleth and Mr. Joshi have suggested, to L's fear of change. Mr. Joshi and Kenneth W. Faig, Jr. write (AH. P. Lovecraft: His Life and Work@ in H. P. Lovecraft: Four Decades of Criticism, p. 14) that it was not the fact that Providence homes were Adestroyed or renovated by the foreigners . . . that he resented; it was, symbolically, the reduction of that aura of the past which should be preserved in the name of culture.@ *** L's belief in Abiological racism@ may have found confirmation in Darwinism, which regarded many peoples as sub-human. Mr. Joshi is right to call Charles Isaacson and James Morton's rebukes to L's racist remarks Adevastating@ (135). Morton in particular is eloquent, as when he states Adogmatism is made to do duty for argument@ (136). I felt like applauding. *** Due to his callowness, L was, regrettably, rude in his vehement debate on astrology. Since he was playing a latter day Isaac Bickerstaffe in heavy-handed satire (116), I hope he recollected the remark by the original Bickerstaffe, Dean Swift, ASatire is a sort of glass, wherein beholders do generally discover everybody's face but their own.@ *** In the parody of sentimental verse by James Laurence Crowley (126-7), L's failure is his lack of exaggeration, so the parody could be mistaken for its victim. *** The statement that the Randolph Carter character was not consistent, but may have been almost distinct personalities (302), reminds me of someone's observation that Howard was fond of certain names, such as ASteve.@ Perhaps ARandolph Carter@ was used in such a way. *** The statement (502) A [Robert E.] Howard himself is in many ways more interesting than his stories@ is an ironic echo of Edmund Wilson's ALovecraft himself, however, is a little more interesting than his stories@ (quoted from H. P. Lovecraft: Four Decades of Criticism, p. 48). *** Of AThe Two Black Bottles@ it is curious to read that L wrote Aespecially the portions in dialect@ (407), for that would seem more foreign to his narrative talent. Yet he must have been attracted to dialect--and could be a skillful mimic--as witness its use in AThe Colour Out of Space,@ AThe Dunwich Horror,@ AThe Shadow Over Innsmouth,@ and variously in his letters. *** Perhaps it was an oversight that L's mention of Warren Harding (321) was not linked with the indirect reference to him in AThe Rats in the Walls@? *** Reading about L's attempt to play AYes, We Have No Bananas@ (322) awakened me to consider if he had had any training in keyboard instruments. This episode suggests he did, although the biography does not cover the subject. *** Fritz Leiber may be the one correspondent who might be L's closest literary equal (622). But perhaps Robert Bloch and Henry Kuttner will outlast him because their literary virtues are more dependent on straight story-telling aimed at the average reader. *** Of those who wrote of the Cthulhu Mythos, it is reckoned Acurious@ that in the 1960's Atwo of the most dynamic figures were English@ (644). Perhaps this was a consequence of the English house Victor Gallancz publishing L in the 1950's. *** The biography echoes my view Athat one's final pictures of Lovecraft must be based largely upon the last ten or so years of his existence@ (649). *

During the discussion of the Jackson controversy, the readership is labeled Apathetically ill-educated@ because they cannot distinguish between a story they like and one of literary merit (97). The issue of literary merit is irrelevant in this situation, for none of the reader letters quoted make this point, but rather that they liked the Jackson product, and therefore supported it. Mr. Joshi seems to overlook, as he said L overlooked, his own earlier observation that the readers Awere only interested in cheap entertainment@ (94). *** In discussing a poem written in the modern mode, L makes the stirring observation, AThe 'language of the heart' must be clarified and made intelligible to other hearts, else its purport will forever be confined to its creator@ (130). Mr. Joshi generalizes this into an Aadequate indictment@ of all twentieth-century poetry. While dogmatic and a simplification, it is worth considering. *** After quoting L on Along-haired anarchists . . . preaching a social upheaval@ (177), it is concluded that L would change his view Aantipodally@ about socialism. Yet L continued against Asocial upheaval,@ did not become pro-Bolshevik, and he was not on the side of indiscriminate extortion resulting from strikes. He was someone Ain whom the sense of tradition has been strongly ingrained@ and saw tradition Aas the only bulwark against nihilism,@ which would be a natural consequence of his breeding (484). *** In asking why the treatise ASome Repetitions on the Times@ was written (568), the biographer overlooks the earlier point that L wrote chiefly for self-expression. *** I was surprised to hear L called Aan extreme misfit@ (181) for the phrase's aura of condemnation puts Mr. Joshi in the camp of those who chose to stereotype L as an eccentric. *** Meanings are juggled with in the instance of Afans.@ There are fantasy fans Abut there are no Beethoven fans@ (536); actually there are, but the societally approved words used to describe them are Aadmirers@ and the like. *** The view ALovecraft towers above other writers of the pulp magazines@ (650) ignores Raymond Chandler, Ray Bradbury, and similar talents. Likewise contrary to his sentiments, E. Hoffman Price, Seabury Quinn, Manly Wade Wellman, and other pulpsters have not Aachieved merciful oblivion,@ for they are still recalled fondly by a few readers. In the same vein Mr. Joshi states that on Athe literary scale@ many Weird Tales fictions are mostly Acomplete rubbish@ (332) and Ashould never have been published@ (333). I wish there had been some evaluation about other pulps and their contents so that the merit of Weird Tales might have been contextualized. Perhaps he is far more heroic than I in his stern evaluation of these works. Interestingly, Mr de Camp is understanding in this area where he is not. A work that exists only to entertain has, if successful, at least that value. I am uncertain what a Aliterary scale@ is, for literature is not fixed, but in flux, as the re-evaluations of such names as William Blake, John Donne and William Shakespeare have shown. *** The observation that L's Amost characteristic work is indeed realism except where the supernatural enters@ (580) is acceptable provided that the word Arealism@ implies different degrees. Realism in Hemingway and others is not the same as it is in L, who creates a world thoroughly saturated with a unique existence.*** Points of a fan letter are answered by quoting, approvingly, L on another matter: AIt refuted itself@ (610). I wish the context of this quote had been given, for as it baldly stands, it represents discourtesy to the person being rebuked. Taken at its intellectual worth, it is a glib evasion; it can be mustered as a generic response to any argument on any subject. *** A quote on L by Edmund Wilson is claimed to have Aerrors and misconceptions,@ but certainly the former is the wrong word, unless a declaration of value can be held as an objective truth. The rebuttal of Colin Wilson, like that of Edmund Wilson, is somewhat forced and unconvincing, though a telling point is made in the comment, AWilson, much more than Lovecraft, is a curiosity of intellectual history@ (644). *** Derleth's possessive interpretation of L's creation is upbraided, while the independent contributions of Onderdonk, Leiber, and Wetzel are commended. Yet it should be understood that knowledge of such work by them was able to reach a larger public, such as it was, thanks to Derleth's Arkham House. *** Mr. de Camp is faulted for not being Aa trained philosopher@ who could trace L's thought. (647) By implication does this mean that Mr. Joshi is one? *** It is misleading to read that, among others, S. J. Perelman Amade clear allusions to Lovecraft in [his] work@ (649), for was not this Awork@ just simply a letter? *** Mr. Joshi endorses L's view Athat the eighteenth century represented a high-water mark in Anglo-American culture@ (651), which would surprise those who have called the nineteenth century Athe American Renaissance@ or Athe flowering of New England@ because of Hawthorne, Emerson, Thoreau, and others. *** L is praised for Adepicting@ cosmicism, but a middling better word is Asuggesting,@ since a strength of L's prose was an enlisting of the reader's imagination and aiming it toward the unimaginable. *** L's letters are very fine and ought to have a wider audience, but it is doubtful that they may eventually Abe recognised as his greatest literary and personal achievement@ (654). It is the fiction that has established him, and the letters have been published because of this. However excellent, his letters will remain subordinate to his creative genius. *** It is stated that some who have read this biography will judge L Afreakish and eccentric@ (649)--yet for the reasonable the biography repudiates that.


Since I disagree with L himself about some of the stories he would choose to have put in a book, such as AThe Terrible Old Man@ (432), it is a given I also disagree with Mr. Joshi's treatments of several stories. He may concentrate on origin, or throw in biographical elements, or closely evaluate them. Judgements may teeter too far one way or another. He can be too indulgent, as when he calls AThe Tree@ a Asatisfying and elegantly written little story@ (224). Rather, this is descriptive of the slighted AThe Cats of Ulthar,@ whose popularity and excellence is attested by its various anthology appearances. AIn the Vault@ has also appeared in its share of anthologies, and it is also belittled. I suspect the bias against some stories is a result of their Gothic horror genre, and perhaps because they are short stories. The long stories that have strong science fictional qualities are praised--and in the instance of AThe Mound@ overpraised--at the expense of those closer to Gothic horror. So AThe Shadow Over Innsmouth@ and At the Mountains of Madness are given adulatory treatments while APickman's Model@ and AThe Thing on the Doorstep@ are among those found wanting. This is not to say this is true for every Gothic horror story, but enough. *** His judgments on several weird authors is also arguable. In Algernon Blackwood there is Amuch . . . to relish@ (381) while in M. R. James Amuch . . . is thin@ (382), whereas I would guess most critics prefer James over Blackwood. Also, I would amend both L's and his biographer's decision that Blackwood, James, Machen, and Dunsany are the four modern weird masters by adding Hodgson, and perhaps Wakefield. It was exciting to learn there were comments made by James and Machen on ASupernatural Horror in Literature@ (424) and that it was perhaps read by Blackwood, Dunsany, and others. *** In the publicity of L's acquaintance with Dunsany, it is easy to overlook the possibility that Dunsany read L, and yet, pleasant surprise, he did, first contemporaneously in a Adreadful@ poem, then years later in L's Dunsaniads. Then there was A. Merritt, who included some recognition of L's fiction in his Dwellers in the Mirage. *** When in 1915 astronomy writings by L appeared as newspaper articles in Asheville, N. C. (118), possibly a teenage Thomas Wolfe read them. *** The depiction of the German in AThe Temple@ is unconvincingly labeled a Avicious satire.@ Could this not be a manner of characterization? Other readers, such as Sam Moskowitz, have seen no satire and praised the story for its character. The story itself is accused of Atoo much supernaturalism@ (234) because of the various weird elements that do not fit in with the story line, other than creating atmosphere, which is more important than narrative. One way of squaring the story with the accusation is by interpreting it as a dive into the ocean of the subconscious, where a dream scape is inevitable. Or perhaps it is drawing upon the same myth structure as AThe Rime of the Ancient Mariner,@ which it distantly resembles. *** For L action serves atmosphere and creates it, whatever the melodramatic indiscretion, as in AThe Whisperer in Darkness@ gun battle which is compared to Ashoot-outs in cheap western movies@ (478). *** AFacts Concerning the Late Arthur Jermyn and His Family@ is praised for its Arestrained language@ (235), and then, paradoxically, the opening passage is quoted (ALife is a hideous thing [etc.]@). ARestraint@ is not the word for this. Regrettably, I have found this passage popularly quoted in various presentations about L, as though it were the quintessential representative of L's style and his view. So far that L made use of melodramatic flourishes, a case can be made for the style, while the view on life expressed is closer to artistic license than biographical truth. The opening is a rehearsal for the introduction to the fine AThe Call of Cthulhu.@ The story is not high on my list, and the virtues claimed for it are questionable. *** The quoted words of Nyarlathotep to Randolph Carter (The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath) are mis-called Amoving@ (414), though they are a bit gushing, even superficial in presentation, despite the sincerity of the sentiments. Like the 1939 movie The Wizard of Oz, the moral of the novel is there's no place like home, that one must A leave dreamland behind, realise the beauty to be found on his doorstep@ (414). *** Guy de Maupassant's AThe Horla@ is Athe dominant literary influence@ (400) on AThe Call of Cthulhu.@ This is strained, or perhaps insightful. The Horla was a personal demonic being that haunted one man, and such similarities that there are between the stories are chiefly superficial. *** If the view (270) is correct that AHerbert West, Reanimator@ need not be influenced by Frankenstein because the weird concept behind it is so generic, then could this not also be applied to AFrom Beyond,@ which is traced also to Frankenstein, as well as to Hugh Elliot? *** When I read of L's tour of the 1796 Dutch Reformed Church (284) I understood why there were Dutch references in AThe Hound.@ As with the later sections of AHerbert West, Reanimator,@ AThe Hound@ is called a Aparody@ as a way of explaining its luridness. This could also be attributed to AThe Outsider@ or any melodramatic scene in any of the works. More convincing is required. L's sense of humor, particularly in his satiric verse, is established. While I was aware of its occasional appearance in his letters, as well as in his fiction, I had regarded it as a minor chord. Now I think it is more prevalent. *** Mr. Joshi claims that in AThe Rats in the Walls@ L Aeliminated any racist overtone@ (302); but the cat's name, the parallel of Southern slavery with the caged Abeasts,@ and similar matters show racism is a deliberate theme here.*** Pickman's discharge of all his pistol's chambers (APickman's Model@) is called Aa rather odd way to kill rats@ (405), though he may have been trying to frighten them, for which there is the evidence through the lion tamer analogy. *** Surprisingly, the narrator of AThe Shadow over Innsmouth@ had a name--Robert Olmstead. His plight is considered both horrible and Ainexpressibly tragic@ (499), which is a mis-statement. Tragedy means the reader feels sympathy for the narrator, and the typical minimalism of characterization in L does not suggest this. Though L may have imbued the character with some of his own interests, he never emerges as a felt personality. Professor Burleson, several years ago, inclosed in mailing 49 a piece about the difficulty of tragedy in L's world of modern sensibility. Moreover, one does not feel for the narrator at the story's ending because it is contrived and somewhat conventional. The surprise fizzles. *** The statements that Nyarlathotep is the whisperer in the chair and that the aliens wish to enslave the human race is fanciful and not provable. *** In AThe Haunter of the Dark@ the explanation is that lightning killed Blake--while I had surmised it was the seizure of his mind by the haunter. Mr. Joshi's reading is supported, historically, by the bolts that destroyed the houses in AThe Tomb@ and AThe Picture in the House.@ Since especially in that last story the mechanicality or coincidence of the bolt is a fault, so likewise would it be in AThe Haunter of the Dark@; whereas a mind dying because of fright or psychic dispossession has elegance and some subtlety. Another story that can have an alternative reading is the scene in ACool Air,@ where Dr. Muñoz reaches for his eyes. The interpretation given is that the eyes have nearly popped out, though I have always seen it as the commencement of the eyes' deliquescence. As Mr. Joshi might have remarked, such are the quibbles of L scholarship. *** There are many slighting remarks wrongly made against the great AThe Dunwich Horror.@ For example, Armitage is not pompous, arrogant, and self-important but, like Muñoz and others, could be an idealization of L.*** There are three disputable reasons given as flaws in AThe Thing on the Doorstep.@ For example, the word Acosmic@ appears but there is no cosmicism (541). If omission of cosmicism is a flaw, then many of L's stories are guilty. *** AThe Silver Key@ is labeled a Aparable,@ and if true then it would be productive to compare it with the allegorical AThe White Ship.@


The news L kept a diary was but one of the facts that came as particular surprises to me, either because I did not know them, knew them partly, or had forgotten them; and I was also challenged by some story interpretations. It was a pleasure to discover that L wrote a story I was unfamiliar with, AA Reminiscence of Dr. Samuel Johnson@ (160), while the knowledge that there is even a lost story (ALife and Death@ (245)) and a lost story fragment (511) excites the imagination. *** It is at the least intriguing to learn from a L letter that AArthur Jermyn@ is L's answer to the secret lives depicted in Sherwood Anderson's Winesburg, Ohio (236). *** Yet another treat was my discovery that the first article on L was in a newspaper around 1927, and that there was a school edition of L's stories with an introduction by one of his correspondents. *** The first three sonnets of Fungi from Yuggoth were written in prose, and Edwin Arlington Robinson was not its inspiration but Donald Wandrei's Sonnets of the Midnight Hour was. The Wandrei suggestion is logical. *** Henry Kuttner's AThe Graveyard Rats@ is distanced from Lovecraftian elements, whereas I had accepted, perhaps too wishfully, the contrasting comment by Sam Moskowitz in Seekers of Tomorrow. *** There is a welcome debunking of Winfield Townley Scott's assertion that L removed the covers of Weird Tales. *** When I attended the Lovecraft Centennial Conference I saw on display the sobering document, AInstructions in Case of Decease,@ and was much affected by it. This paper was the real thing, a connection to the writer at the end of his life. Now I learn that I was deceived, that it was a transcription by Annie Gamwell, who wished to keep the original. Regrettably, the biography does not explain for whom she made the document, nor if the original is extant. *** Among the delights of trivia was learning that a lawyer specialized in retrieving debts from Hugo Gernsback (423)! I wish Mr. Joshi had also included L's filliping remark to that hopelessly bad debt client, Lee Alexander Stone of Chicago. *** How curious that although Frank Belknap Long's Howard Phillips Lovecraft: Dreamer on the Nightside was published simultaneously with the de Camp Lovecraft, it was a reaction against it. *** Mr. Joshi's biography thoroughly supersedes Mr. de Camp's in scope, detail, accuracy, and analysis. In favor of Mr. de Camp's it must be said that his was the first major L biography published and as such it broke new ground. It organized L's life for the first time and brought it into the mainstream. Likewise it uncovered information that might have been otherwise lost. Ironically, its serious fault of interpretive bias may now be a virtue thanks to the later biography. Mr. Joshi's sympathetic but balanced view of L allows the reader to look at some of Mr. de Camp's remarks as editorializings that provide a different point of view. *** With so many details in this large biography, it would seem that there are no more substantial discoveries to be made about L's life.


This has been the 24th issue of The Criticaster (October 1997, mailing 100) by Stephen Walker.