The New Annotated H.P. Lovecraft, edited by Leslie Klinger (Liveright, 928 pp., $39.95)
Stephen King, who knows a few things about the macabre, labels H(oward) P(hillips) Lovecraft “The twentieth century’s greatest practitioner of the classic horror tale.” On the other hand, Edmund Wilson, the doyen of American literary critics, made no room on his shelves for Lovecraft: “The only real horror in most of these fictions is the horror of bad taste and bad art.” Which judgment applies? They both do. On occasion, Lovecraft reaches the plane of Oscar Wilde’s Picture of Dorian Gray and Edgar Allen Poe’s “The Telltale Heart.” But too often his claustrophobic, hysterical narratives barely achieve the level of a Texas Chain Saw Massacre movie: “For two hours he waited with the doctor in the oppressive house where fear and miasma were slowly gathering as the empty panel in the upstairs library leered and leered and leered.”
Moreover, Lovecraft’s attempts to reproduce the rural dialects of New England, where many of his stories are set, verge on self-parody: “His haousekeeper Sally . . . up an’ spoke suddent of a fearful smell, an’ says her boy Chan’cey was a-screamin’ as haow it was jest like he smelt up to the Whateley rewins Monday mornin’.” Yet with all these liabilities, Lovecraft could be a spellbinder, evoking a hidden world of forces that defy natural laws and mock the rational mind.
It’s always hazardous to compare the teller and the tale, but in this case, the parallel is unavoidable. According to Leslie Klinger, editor of the elephantine New Annotated H. P. Lovecraft (weighing in at five pounds), Howard the boy never developed into Howard the man. His father Winfield, a jewelry salesman, exhibited symptoms of psychosis in 1893, when his son was three. Doctors sent the sufferer to Butler Hospital, an institution for the insane in Providence, Rhode Island. Winfield remained there until his death five years later. In middle age, Howard’s mother Sarah succumbed to depression and delusions; she also spent time in Butler.
Raised by his grandparents, Howard became a brilliant but sickly child who lived almost entirely in his head. As an adolescent he rejected religions of any kind, studied astronomy and chemistry on his own, and slowly worked out the mythologies of alien and malevolent spirits that were to characterize his oeuvre. In one typical tale, “The Dunwich Horror,” a young virgin mates with Yog So-Thoth, an unearthly being. She gives birth to twins. The evil one consumes the countryside before vanishing into another dimension.
Howard rarely went out in daytime. Workers on the nightshift in Providence soon became familiar with the pale, long-faced walker. Back in his room, he wrote stories that found their way into small magazines devoted to the weird and the occult. But those publications rarely paid more than a penny a word. At times, he forsook food in order to pay for stationery and stamps.
During the 1920s, the name of H.P. Lovecraft finally became familiar to thousands of readers, but as Klinger notes, literary fame continued to elude him. Howard’s sad self-appraisal: “There are probably seven persons, in all, who really like my work.” Mass magazines offered higher fees but wanted conventional fiction. Lovecraft refused. “I could not write about ‘ordinary people’ because I am not the least interested in them.” In that sentence a great deal was left unsaid. Howard despised minorities, as well as those he considered “mongrels.” Indeed, during a sojourn in New York City, he described the populace as “an Asiatic hell’s huddle of the world’s cowed, broken, inartistic, & unfit.” It’s a wonder not only that the man married, but that he chose a woman of Jewish and Ukrainian ancestry. It’s no wonder that the marriage didn’t last.
In his last decade, the horrormeister returned to Providence, where he holed up and wrote the narratives that would bolster his reputation. Alas, that reputation was posthumous. When the 46-year-old succumbed to intestinal cancer in 1937, few obituaries were printed outside his home state. Yet, after World War II, the name H. P. Lovecraft threw a long shadow. Klinger, whose previous work includes discerning annotations of Dracula and Sherlock Holmes, details the influence his subject has had on American culture. At least a dozen films have been based on the stories, ranging from a well-received Hollywood production of The Dunwich Horror to Bleeders, a.k.a. Hemoglobin, a deservedly obscure Canadian movie.
Predictably, many heavy metal, punk, and post-punk musicians have based songs on Lovecraft’s work (in the late 1950s, a Chicago-based band even called itself H.P. Lovecraft—later abbreviated to Love Craft.) More than a score of video games have tumbled from the Lovecraft inkwell, and every year, new graphic novels salute the guru of the ghastly.
Will this latest volume bring Lovecraft new recognition and royalties? As far as profits are concerned, much of the work was published more than 70 years ago, placing it in the public domain. There goes the money. But status is something else. Stephen King, Peter Straub, Anne Rice, Dean Koontz, and scores of other genre writers have acknowledged a profound debt to the nerdy isolate, driving readers to his work. Fair enough. For Howard Phillips Lovecraft was the one who opened the crypt. New talents followed—and found the celebrity that eluded him in life.