Friday, 23 October 2015

Review:'The Spirit of Revision: Lovecraft’s Letters to Zealia Brown Reed Bishop,' edited by Sean Branney & Andrew Leman

There is a common conception of H. P. Lovecraft as the struggling artiste, as an author who refused to compromise his aesthetic vision in furtherance of professional profit. While it is true that Lovecraft did, indeed, consider his work to be on an artistic level far above the majority of work-for-hire pulp authors who published in the same magazines as him, it is also true, though rarely examined, that Lovecraft could be a consummate businessman when the need arose. During the period 1927 to 1936 that need arose regularly, and has been detailed rarely so touchingly as in the remarkable The Spirit of Revision: Lovecraft’s Letters to Zealia Brown Reed Bishop.

There is also a romantic idea, among literary types, of the lost packet of letters discovered against all odds, illuminating the life of one’s chosen author of study. It is this idea that pervades A. S. Byatt’s novel Possession, and it is one of the oldest and most wistful dreams of scholars. For who would not wish to stumble upon a never before seen cache of precious data, and thereby further the common knowledge of our literary ancestors? That the idea is romantic does not mean it is impossible; indeed, it was just such a discovery that allowed the H. P. Lovecraft Historical Society to assemble and publish The Spirit of Revision.

In brief, Zealia Bishop, client and correspondent with Lovecraft, squirreled away her collection of letters and manuscripts in a trunk before her death in 1968. That trunk passed down, eventually, to her great-great-nephew, Sean McCall, who kept it until he happened to meet Will Gautney and Mary Sullivan, guests at his home for Thanksgiving. Will’s Cthulhu t-shirt inspired a conversation about the letters, and he and Mary were allowed to examine them. Mary arranged for them to be shown to, and eventually published by, her friends at the HPLHS. Finds of this sort are not only rare, they may be the pinnacle of one’s lifelong interest in Lovecraftian literature.

If the McCall family never has another discovery greater than this, then the letters contained within The Spirit of Revision will be enough. Here we see Lovecraft from many different angles: we see Lovecraft as a professional, attempting to increase the business afforded him through revision work; we see him as a literary mentor, offering pages of advice on what young authors should read and how they should write; we see him as a friend, spending his scarce free time to reach out to Zelia’s son, James, to encourage him in his interests; and we see Lovecraft’s prejudice, too, speaking proudly of fascism and condemning bookstores who have Jewish owners. The fact of the matter is that Lovecraft, like most people, cannot be reduced down to one or two clearly defined facets of personality. He was complex as well as troubling, and always overwhelmingly generous, kind, and erudite.

The Spirit of Revision is remarkable, then, for showing us as many different facets of Lovecraft as possible, all in a slim, 190-page volume. We have seen Lovecraft’s philosophy and political thought in A Means to Freedom, his letters to Robert E. Howard, and his attitudes towards professional life versus aestheticism in Essential Solitude, his letters to August Derleth. Of the roughly 100,000 letters that Lovecraft wrote in his lifetime, roughly 13,000 or so survive (the number is contested), and only a handful have been published since Arkham House first began publishing the Selected Letters in 1964. How lucky we are, then, that The Spirit of Revision was not only swiftly brought to press, but also done so with a fine editorial hand, eschewing expurgation entirely.

The Lovecraft represented in these letters, the quality of the whole person that I think they show, is similar to the presentation of Lovecraft in O Fortunate Floridian, his letters to R. H. Barlow, and Lovecraft at Last, his letters to Willis Conover, and this volume deserves to stand with those greats. Lovecraft’s epistolary habits lend themselves to verbosity, and the HPLHS have made every attempt to augment his already impressive letters with samples of historical documents relevant to his subjects. Here are pamphlets for the Endless Caverns, next to the letter in which Lovecraft charmingly relays his visit during an antiquarian tour. Here are postcards of areas in Flatbush where Lovecraft lived part time during his estrangement from his wife. And here are recreations of newspapers, detailing the New England floods that helped inspire Lovecraft’s “The Whisperer in Darkness”.

It may be that Lovecraft will, eventually, be better remembered for his epistolary efforts than for his fiction, as S. T. Joshi has asserted. If that is the case, then we will have to hope for more packets of letters, left neglected for decades in trunks, drawers, and closets, until fortune delivers them to the hands of those who recognize them for what they are. If, instead, we have found all that there is to find, then we must be satisfied with the collections that we already have, and attempt to come to know the mind of the greatest author of fantastic literature in the Twentieth Century from the patchwork remainders. No matter the case, however, we should applaud those, such as Sean Branney and Andrew Leman, who edited The Spirit of Revision, who have worked to ensure that what we do have is given to us in remarkable, memorable, and important volumes like this.

The Spirit of Revision: Lovecraft’s Letters to Zealia Brown Reed Bishop was published in 2015, and is available for purchase from the H. P. Lovecraft Historical Society ( for $22.50 USD. Although books have not, as of yet, been a mainstay of the HPLHS métier, this is a fine first entry into a publishing venture. The Spirit of Revision is highly recommended for scholars and fans alike; here we have voices from the past, speaking softly of daily lives long gone, and we should listen. Both to Lovecraft, of course, and through him, his compatriot, the impressive Mrs. Bishop.

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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