Monday, 12 October 2015

Review: 'Lovecraft & a World in Transition: Collected Essays on H. P. Lovecraft' by S. T. Joshi

Greeting Goths! In preparation for the Manchester Gothic Festival starting next week (See the full program at: we thought we'd celebrate one of our favorite weird fiction authors in keeping with the Festival's theme: "What Lies Beneath?" H.P. Lovecraft is an author who wrote extensively about the horrors that lurk beneath the surface, and we'll be looking at some academic and non-academic approaches to reading his work.

Guest blogger Dr. Géza Reilly has kindly reviewed four works of criticism on H.P. Lovecraft, and we will be posted them throughout the next two weeks in addition to our regular group work.  Enjoy!

Locating and acquiring secondary source material can be a chore for scholars of weird fiction, as it can be for specialists of any genre whose academic cachet is only just starting to find its foothold. The vast majority of the most important scholarly work on the weird has been published in small-press amateur or fan magazines (Crypt of Cthulhu, Nyctalops, Lovecraft Studies, Studies in Weird Fiction, etc.), most of which are long out of print and whose individual issues now constitute collector’s items. Thankfully, some of the pioneers of weird fiction criticism have seen fit to anthologize their harder-to-find works. Donald R. Burleson, for example, has recently issued his Lovecraft: An American Allegory (Hippocampus Press, 2015), and S. T. Joshi has collected the vast majority of his critical articles on H. P. Lovecraft in Lovecraft and a World in Transition through Hippocampus Press.

Neither Lovecraft nor Joshi should require much of an introduction. Lovecraft (1890 – 1937), from Providence, Rhode Island, was a seminal figure in early American weird fiction, and is currently one of the most important figures in modern fantastic literature. Joshi is often referred to as the “pre-eminent Lovecraft scholar”, although I feel that it is short shrift to limit his achievements to one literary domain. Nevertheless, Joshi is one of a handful of scholars who has worked since the early 1970s to both reintroduce Lovecraft to the world, and subject his work to rigorous academic criticism. The forty years of Joshi’s work shows in Lovecraft and a World in Transition, which comes in at 645 pages (including sources and index), and the range of his investigation into Lovecraft’s life and work are showcased admirably by this anthology. The only exclusions are, according to the author, Joshi’s reviews about Lovecraft (collected in the 2009 Classics and Contemporaries), “some inferior or ephemeral essays” (Joshi, 9), and, a bit strangely, all of Joshi’s work for the New Lovecraft Collector.

Rather than organizing his articles in order of publication, Joshi has used thematic groupings, ranging from the first, “Biographical Studies”, to the sixth, “On Lovecraft’s Legacy and Influence”. While this style of grouping makes consultation of the various essays simpler, it also means that certain insights into Lovecraft and his texts are repeated in a relatively small page range. The vast majority of these articles are substantive in their critical acumen, even when they only span a handful of pages, which attests to the devotion Joshi has given to his subject. It seems odd, however, for Joshi to have included the essay “The Cthulhu Mythos”, which is a short version of the expanded 2008 project The Rise and Fall of the Cthulhu Mythos (reprinted in August, 2015 as The Rise, Fall, and Rise of the Cthulhu Mythos). One would think that the space could have been used for another of Joshi’s works.

The critical style employed by Joshi throughout does not range farther than biographical criticism and textual studies, which should be no surprise to anyone familiar with Joshi’s academic writing in general. Atomistic analysis of Lovecraft’s work is rarely present, and most of Joshi’s insights hinge on elements drawn from Lovecraft’s biography rather than individual texts themselves. This is not, it should be said, a poor analytic choice on Joshi’s part, but it does cause some moments of consternation (such as in “The Dream World and the Real World in Lovecraft”, where Joshi’s somewhat strained judgments of a set of Lovecraft’s stories could be relieved if he were to set aside the man and focus on the work for a moment). All in all, however, Joshi is obviously most comfortable with these two critical approaches, and at his best he shines at both (the articles “Textual Problems in Lovecraft” and “A Guide to the Lovecraft Fiction Manuscripts at the John Hay Library” are standout examples of Joshi’s rigor at textual studies).

Physically, Lovecraft and a World in Transition is well arranged and presented. Hippocampus Press is known for the quality of their publications, despite being a small press, and that dedication shows here. The binding is tight, with good quality paper, and the cover is graced with an original photograph of Lovecraft (courtesy of Dan Lorraine). An obvious amount of time was spent preparing Joshi’s articles in the best possible manner, with revised citations and new footnotes bringing each essay up to date with current scholarship. In my reading I discovered one typo (a misused comma that truncated a short word), but realized that an entire article – “The Lovecraft Centennial Conference: Concluding Address” – is listed in the “Sources” section without being present in the body of the text. The title is currently sold through the Hippocampus website and the Amazon marketplace, retailing $65 USD for hardcover and $35 USD for softcover. Ebook versions will be available, but are disabled at the time of this writing.

Many of the works of the pioneers of weird fiction criticism contain invaluable insight for modern critics of the genre. Each of the articles by these titans in the field represent an immense amount of labor and passion, and each helps form the solid foundation upon which we latter day critics blithely walk. It is sad that so many of them have been allowed to almost entirely disappear from the marketplace of ideas without comment, and we devotees are left at a profound disadvantage by not having ready access to an incredible number of scholarly pieces. How lucky we are, then, that some of the aforementioned titans have decided to republish decades of work in a readily accessible manner. The scholarship of S. T. Joshi, as represented in Lovecraft and a World in Transition, may not represent the cutting edge of criticism, but none can say that we do not owe him a great debt. Lovecraft and a World in Transition offers incredible insight into one of the greatest writers of the Twentieth Century, and even greater insight into the ongoing career of one of the best critics of the fantastic to ever live.

Dr. Géza A. G. Reilly has been an avid reader and collector of all things Lovecraftian since he was too young to know better.  Géza received his doctorate in English literature in 2015 and is, to his knowledge, the only scholar of weird fiction ever produced by the University of Manitoba.  An expatriate Canadian, he currently lives in Tampa, Florida with his wife, Andrea, and their cat Mim.

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