Wednesday, 13 November 2013

Sources and Resources - Background and materials for H.P. Lovecraft

Ahead of next week's Lovecraft session we've got another great blog post by visiting Gothic Reading Group member, Richard Gough Thomas. Whether you're new to Lovecraft and don't know your Shoggoths from your Azathoths or if you're just curious about sources for Lovecraft scholarship and adaptations, Richard's post will have something for you.



Richard Gough Thomas

As Kathleen has ably illustrated ways we might look on Lovecraft’s stories as Gothic texts, I’ll take this opportunity to write about some of the wider discussions in Lovecraft scholarship and link to a selection of internet Lovecraftiana that readers can ponder (or cringe at) at their leisure.

Unlikely though it may seem, H. P. Lovecraft is now a pop culture icon:

Fantasy, science fiction and horror texts in all media are regularly tagged as ‘Lovecraftian’ without any particularly developed sense of what that might mean. In genre-savvy circles, the term might be used to describe a sense of "cosmic horror": "…the alluring and provocative abysses of unplumbed space and unguessed entity which press in upon the known world…" (Lovecraft, letter to Clark Ashton Smith, 17th October 1930). In other fields, we see it used as merely a euphemism for gribbly monsters with tentacles. Despite the author’s self-image as an aristocrat and scholar, pop culture’s claim on Lovecraft has come in a fan-led, democratic form. Critical interest in Lovecraft has been thin on the ground (outside of enthusiast circles) until recent years. Among horror writers his name is frequently invoked, but his prose decried. Film adaptations have, until recently, been low-budget exploitation pictures (Which is not to say they lack charm, as my DVD collection will attest). In contrast Lovecraft fandom has produced a wealth of original and adapted media, most enthusiastically since 2007 when the author’s work – much of it only ever ambiguously in copyright – moved indisputably into the public domain. Such work ranges from the comic pastiche (the musical A Shoggoth on the Roof or the recent adaptation of “The Dunwich Horror” at the University Drama Studio) to inventive homage such as this trailer for a silent film version of next week’s text, “The Call of Cthulhu”:

I would, however, reject any sense that fandom’s embrace of Lovecraft is in any way ironic. Though Lovecraft liked to think of himself as an eighteenth-century gentleman, his writing career began as a poet and essayist in the amateur press. The amateur press was perhaps the forerunner of blogging, as aficionados wrote and printed newsletters and journals at their own expense, for distribution to subscribers. It was organised in a democratic form, with constituencies of readers electing committees to manage affairs (which Lovecraft took regular part in, serving as president of the National Amateur Press Association from 1922-23). As Lovecraft turned to professional writing, his major avenue of publication was the pulp magazine – often thought of as the younger American cousin of the Victorian penny dreadful, but also the starting point for many of the greats of twentieth century genre fiction (Raymond Chandler, Isaac Asimov and Ursula Le Guin are the first that spring to mind).  It’s interesting to note that Weird Tales, the magazine that published several of the author’s major works but with whom Lovecraft had an uncertain relationship, now trades on its association with him. It seems fitting that popular and amateur expression make up the most resilient part of Lovecraft’s legacy. 

The issue of Weird Tales in which "The Call of Cthulhu" originally appeared.

As an amateur press man, Lovecraft’s kept up a voluminous correspondence with writers across the United States. The author’s modern biographer, editor and critic, S.T. Joshi estimates that Lovecraft wrote some 75,000 letters over the course of his short adult life.  The “gentleman of Providence” played mentor to a number of the writers that came after him, including a young Robert Bloch. Among these disciples was a Midwestern author, August Delerth. When Lovecraft died in 1937, Delerth took it upon himself (initially with Lovecraft’s friend Donald Wandrei) to publish the entirety of the author’s oeuvre, including previously unpublished stories and selections from his correspondence. After wrestling unsuccessfully with mainstream publishers, Delerth and Wandrei produced the first collection of Lovecraft’s fiction, The Outsider and Others (1939), under their own imprint – Arkham House. The publisher would go on to issue the majority of Lovecraft’s works and jealously guarded their dubious claims on the author’s copyright (publishing widely in the amateur press, much of Lovecraft’s work was already public domain). Delerth published Lovecraft’s work indiscriminately, placing juvenilia alongside the author’s major work and making no distinction between his original work and his work-for-hire (most famously ghostwriting “Under the Pyramids” for the escape artist, Harry Houdini). Least forgivable in the eyes of some Lovecraft critics was Delerth’s series of ‘posthumous collaborations’. With access to the author’s notes and commonplace books, Delerth wrote sixteen new stories based on fragments and ideas he found there, publishing them under both their names (of these, only the novella The Lurker at the Threshold contains any of Lovecraft’s prose). Such practices were not uncommon in the pulp fiction community – the work of Lovecraft’s friend Robert E. Howard was treated similarly – but it means that feelings regarding Delerth’s contribution are mixed. Many critics agree that Lovecraft’s work would very likely have been forgotten without Delerth’s dedication and, while I accept that to be true, I personally feel that Arkham House’s treatment of Lovecraft’s work is responsible for the author’s neglect (even dismissal) in critical circles. I think it’s telling that we’ve seen a surge in Lovecraft criticism over the last twenty years, alongside the efforts of scholars like Joshi and David E. Schultz to produce collections of the author’s work edited from the original manuscript text and with real thought paid to how stories should be collected together.

In that vein, I should probably suggest some resources for the reading group. If you’re interested in buying Lovecraft stories, I would argue that the Penguin Classics collections are the best. They’re edited and have an introduction by S.T. Joshi, probably the foremost expert on Lovecraft in the Anglosphere (there’s quite a considerable amount of scholarship on Lovecraft in French, hence my distinction). For those of you interested in some kind of electronic format, this page illustrates what I wrote above about Lovecraft fandom. The motherlode of that is probably Lovecraft eZine and if you’re interested in reading three graphic novel adaptations of Lovecraft’s ‘dream cycle’ stories, go here. Since I’ve been banging on about going back to the original text, you can see his novella, The Case of Charles Dexter Ward in manuscript. Lovecraft was also a critic, so to read what he had to say about Radcliffe, Lewis and the Victorian ghost story, his dissertation Supernatural Horror in Literature is available online and widely anthologised. To see what modern authors are saying about him, I would suggest the documentary Fear of the Unknown (warning: it’s a bit melodramatic and repeats a handful of biographical myths in order to spice up the story).

And having just about scratched the surface of Lovecraft studies (I’ve barely even thought about secondary criticism), I realise quite far I have delved into texts that men were not meant to read. Much of this post was gleaned from the writings of the mad Arab, Abdul Alhazred, and the followers of the Great Old Ones police the knowledge of that darkness with Poe-like cruelty. I hear something at the window, a voice calling on me to put down my pen…



Richard Gough Thomas is was a PhD researcher at Manchester Metropolitan University and a visiting member of the Gothic Reading Group at the University of Sheffield. After sending this manuscript to the editors, he was never seen again. . . but you can still check out his blog.

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