H.P. LOVECRAFT: A LIFE, by S.T. Joshi. West Warwick [RI]: Necronomicon Press, 1996. 704 pp. $20.00 (trade paperback).

[Reviewed by Paul T. Riddell]

Nearly sixty years after his death, few contest the effects of H.P. Lovecraft on weird literature. While acting as a direct influence on contemporaries such as Robert E. Howard, Clark Ashton Smith, Fritz Leiber, and Robert Bloch, Lovecraft's stories reached beyond the grave to inspire such diverse authors as James Blish, Stephen King, and Don Webb. With the exception of Poe, no horror writer has become as much of a catalyst to the field of literature as Lovecraft; sadly, he only achieved fame decades after his death in 1937.

Because of Lovecraft's then-unique attitude of injecting cosmicism into his tales (his basic mindset was that humanity matters little in the schemes of the universe, and that the best humanity can expect from the universe is indifference), his tales garnered an immortality almost unknown among weird fiction. While his style is easily imitated and parodied, the ideas behind the style refuse to be cloned: witness the plethora of godawful "Cthulhu Mythos" stories written by lesser writers in the last thirty years alone, and note how none of them stand up to the originals. In the same way, while any number of goofy theories about Lovecraft's inspiration make the rounds (in particular, that his forbidden book The Necronomicon, created to add a further level of atmosphere to his stories, actually exists), very little hard information about Lovecraft remains in print today.

Not that a solid biography of Lovecraft hasn't been tried before: L. Sprague deCamp's Lovecraft: A Biography saw print in 1975 (with an excerpt in his Literary Swordsmen and Sorcerers), followed by Frank Belknap Long's Dreamer on the Nightside, but both of these bios suffered from deep flaws. deCamp, as a very successful writer, couldn't understand why Lovecraft passed up monetary gain in favor of being a "gentleman writer"; since Robert Howard's mindset was much closer to his own, deCamp's bio of Howard, Dark Valley Destiny, was a much more accurate book. Long's own biography was based more on his own memories of Lovecraft when the both of them lived in New York; while helping to dispel most of the myths of Lovecraft's loner tendencies, it offered little real information on Lovecraft's career or mindset.

S.T. Joshi, due to years of researching Lovecraft's works (he corrected decades of editorial errors in Arkham House's collections in the mid-1980s) offers a much fuller view of Lovecraft's life and career. Starting with a Brobdingnagian collection of Lovecraft's correspondence, today mostly in Brown University's archives, he meticulously constructs a view of Lovecraft's early life and inspirations. Through Joshi's tender ministerings, a different Lovecraft emerges: a witty, garrulous man who willingly dedicated any amount of time to helping others improve their writing. In particular, Joshi notes that Lovecraft realized the ridiculousness of his overly florid style: several stories, such as "The Hound" and "Herbert West: Re-Animator", may have been intentional parodies of that style.

Of course, any biography worth its essential salts has to consider the history of its subject, and Joshi goes to almost agonizing detail in capturing Lovecraft's highs and lows. From an analysis of his early writings, both adolescent tales and his voluminous contributions to the amateur press of the time (many of these "lost" stories, particularly his humor tidbits, saw print in the Arkham House collection Miscellaneous Writings) to his failed marriage to Sonia Greene, to his early death at 47, nearly everything Lovecraft did during his life is chronicled by Joshi in respectful exactitude. In 704 pages (including an extensive bibliography), Joshi manages not only to present Lovecraft as a fascinating individual, but an individual whose loss affected the genre more than we know.

For an example of the last, Joshi dedicates one chapter to Lovecraft after he died. While August Derleth took credit for keeping Lovecraft's work in print through Arkham House, Joshi points out that Derleth may have actually kept Lovecraft from being rediscovered until the 1960s: while both Scribner's and Simon & Schuster were intrigued by a possible collection of Lovecraft's best short stories, Derleth's determination to publish a massive three-volume set allowed him to keep control of Lovecraft's works rather than have to share the fame with either publisher. Joshi also unflinchingly critiques Lovecraft's self-appointed heirs: after justifiably savaging Derleth's terrible "Cthulhu Mythos" stories (which injected a Christian good-versus-evil mindset distinctly lacking in Lovecraft's original), he also opens fire on Brian Lumley and Colin Wilson. (Between this and a look at Lovecraft's involvement in the small press, Joshi also manages to show that situations in the amateur press haven't changed at all in the last seventy years or so: genre fiction is still an underpaid field full of bloated, fragile egos and petty backbiting.)

While Joshi's biography misses a few points, such as sufficiently noting how Lovecraft's later stories easily bridged the gap between science fiction and horror (in particular, he advocated Wegner's theory of continental drift, forty years before most geologists and palaeontologists accepted it) or Lovecraft's influence in Hollywood (while mentioning the flawed The Haunted Palace or The Dunwich Horror, he inexplicably ignores Stuart Gordon's Re-Animator and From Beyond, which arguably are two of the best Lovecraft adaptations ever filmed), H.P. Lovecraft: A Life manages the near-impossible: it demythologizes one of the seminal writers of the genre and manages to build a new respect for the man behind the pen. Without doubt, this is the most well-researched biography on Lovecraft ever written, and anyone intending to top this book has an impossible task ahead of them.


© 1997 Edward P. Berglund
Review: © 1997 Paul T. Riddell. All rights reserved. This originally appeared on Tangent.
Graphics © 1997 Old Arkham Graphics Design. All rights reserved. Email to: Corey T. Whitworth.

Created: December 2, 1997; Updated: August 9, 2004