“The twentieth century horror story’s dark and baroque prince” – Stephen King
I first read HP Lovecraft by accident. I think it must have been in the early 1980s, and mum and dad – knowing I was into this sort of thing – bought me an anthology of horror tales for my birthday. Or was it Christmas? The expected writers were present – Poe, Stoker, Bradbury, Dahl – along with a number that were completely unfamiliar to me. It was one of those books made for dipping into, rather than reading cover to cover, and I imagine I’d have first picked out those stories by writers I’d actually heard of; and so it was some time before I came across The Hound.
The story itself follows a familiar enough path : two grave-robbers steal a jade amulet from a crumbling cemetery in Holland and are pursued to their deaths by, well, something (we never do find out quite what it is). So far, so conventional. And yet there was something so compelling about it, something about that gorgeously overwrought, baroque prose that drew me in; as well as hints of a back story of which I knew nothing. Who on earth was Abdul Alhazred? Did the Necronomicon actually exist?
The Hound isn’t a particularly highly regarded work in the Lovecraftian canon. The author himself considered it “a piece of junk”. And, looking back at it now, I can see that, yes, it’s never knowingly underwritten. I don’t care. I love it for the splendid Gothic romp that it is and still recall the thrill of reading it for the first time.
H P Lovecraft, I thought, flicking back to the opening page to double-check the author’s name. I wonder if he’s written anything else? Well, he had but might as well not have done given that little of his work was in print in the UK at that time.
Let’s move on a few years. I’m in my late teens, just about to leave for university, and my best friends and I have become obsessed with a role-playing game called Call of Cthulhu. The strange thing is, we’ve become obsessed with a game set in the worlds of H P Lovecraft without actually having read much Lovecraft. Beyond The Hound the only thing I’ve managed to find in print is his lengthy essay Supernatural Horror in Literature, which gives me a fine list of authors to check out if only they were in print too. Fortunately, Tenby library comes to the rescue as they have hardback collections of some of the key works. We borrow them on rotation all that summer. I think we actually photocopied the whole of The Call of Cthulhu as well. If the role-playing game took its name from the story, we reasoned, we should probably try and be familiar with it.
And now it’s 2022, and the writer who, effectively, never made it beyond the pulp magazines in his lifetime is now published by Penguin Classics. The complete works are on my Kindle, and two handsome Italian hardbacks are on my shelves. We may dream that one day Guillermo del Toro will be able to film At the Mountains of Madness but, in the meantime, we can console ourselves with a Cthulhu cuddly toy and a pint of Lovecraft Unnamable Black Lager. In other words, Lovecraft is mainstream. Which means he isn’t ours anymore. Whisper it (in darkness, of course) but he’s actually considered to be a proper writer.
It’s safe to say that his work isn’t of uniform quality. Much of it, yes, is overwritten and the criticism that he never met an adjective he didn’t like isn’t entirely undeserved. And yet the man who gave us hack-work such as Herbert West : Reanimator also gave us works of genuine, cosmic power such as The Colour out of Space and The Case of Charles Dexter Ward; as well as charming minor pieces such as The Cats of Ulthar.
I knew a reasonable amount about HPL as a man from those volumes of the Collected Letters still in print, as well as Frank Belknap Long’s Dreamer on the Nightside and Sonia Lovecraft’s memoir The Private Life of HP Lovecraft. Nevertheless, a few months ago, I decided it was time to attempt that Everest of Lovecraft scholarship, S T Joshi’s I am Providence, a two-volume expansion of his original H P Lovecraft : a Life, that restores 150,000 words cut from the original. Yes, you read that correctly. 150,000 words.
It’s doubtful if any person living knows as much about Lovecraft as Joshi, and very few – if any – have been as responsible for his critical rehabilitation. He’s a man of immense erudition, yet not one to suffer fools gladly (by “fools”, I mean “the rest of the world”) and also a man possessed of, shall we say, Strong Opinions. So I shall tread lightly…
It’s a story of a life lived out in letters, of friendships forged with people he would never meet face-to-face, and it’s chronicled in minute detail. Truly, there is no aspect of his life that goes unturned here. Elsewhere, Joshi’s analysis of the stories themselves is typically incisive, and occasionally provocative. His analysis of Lovecraft’s reputation in the years following his death is spot-on. And, to his credit, he doesn’t attempt to shy away from Lovecraft’s racism.
However, it has to be said that many of those 150,000 words were originally cut for a reason. You’ll learn more about the small press scene in 1920s New England than you really need to know. You can join in with Joshi in hypothesising about the precise identity of the violin sonata that Lovecraft performed in front of an audience in 1899. And you’ll come to understand exactly why “Cooking with Howard Phillips Lovecraft” was never going to be a best-seller.
A cautious recommend from me, then. If you’re a Lovecraft buff you need to read this (or, more likely, you have already). The casual reader might find the sheer weight of detail a little intimidating. But as a chronicle of a life extraordinary in its ordinariness it’s likely to remain the definitive work for some time to come. I think the “old gentleman from Providence” would have approved.