Review: The Recognition of H.P. Lovecraft

Hippocampus Press sent me a copy of S. T. Joshi’s The Recognition of H. P. Lovecraft in return for an honest review. The pristine, shiny book with the magnificent cover they sent is now dog-eared with numerous underlined passages.

Which is my way of saying it is a book I will reread and refer to often.

The Lovecraft Riddle

When Howard Phillips Lovecraft died in March 1937, he was known to only a handful of readers, writers, and editors. He had published during his all-too-brief lifetime, but only in small-circulation magazines, notably, Weird Tales. Not one collection of his stories had been published in book form.

Today, Lovecraft’s tales are available world-wide in multiple languages. Famous writers and film makers acknowledge his profound influence. He even has an HBO series named after him.

What accounts for Lovecraft’s world-wide popularity? How did an author of fringe stories not only continue to be read, but win over new readers over the years and become a figure of pop culture? Only an ardent admirer and scholar of Lovecraft’s work such as S. T. Joshi could pull together an account of this unparalleled posthumous ascent to fame.

Lovecraft’s Long March

Lovecraft’s readers and fellow writers mourned and celebrated him after his death, including Clark Ashton Smith, Robert Bloch, and Kenneth Sterling. It fell to August Derleth to keep Lovecraft’s work in front of the reading public by printing or reprinting the late author’s greatest works in Weird Tales, some of which had been previously rejected. Later, Derleth founded Arkham House to put those stories and others into book form.

Derleth also had a hand in Lovecraft being featured in the 1945 Armed Forces Edition of paperback books. (It was his father’s copy of one of these books that introduced young Stephen King to Lovecraft.) Here’s a picture I took of some of those books, which includes The Dunwich Horror and a letter requesting more of Lovecraft’s works:

Other paperback editions including Lovecraft trickled out in the 1950s. By the 1960s, his stories made their way into attractive and beautifully illustrated volumes, such as 3 Tales of Horror in 1967. Lovecraft’s reputation was boosted by the roaring success of Rosemary’s Baby and The Exorcist. By this time, the obscure scribbler from Providence was regarded on many campuses as “a sort of counter-cultural figure, along the lines of Nietzsche, Camus, [and] Dalton Trumbo,” no doubt partly due to his appearance in textbooks.

Lovecraft-inspired films, including “Die, Monster, Die!” and “The Shuttered Room,” while not true to the original, nor of sterling quality, did keep the author’s legacy alive.

The Scholars Weigh In

The engine that slowly but inexorably propelled Lovecraft to global recognition was his artistry. Long denigrated as an interesting but flawed scribbler of scary stories, Lovecraft is now appreciated as a gifted craftsman. Shortly after his death, fan publications discussing his work popped up and flourished. As early as 1949, Lovecraft was getting serious scholarly treatment as a literary talent. Graduate-level theses emerged from Ivy League colleges and universities, and by the late 1990s were almost routine. In 2012, Graham Harman, a professor of philosophy at American University in Cairo, could proclaim that Lovecraft’s work “brushes against several of the most crucial philosophical themes of our time.”

His writing style, once considered turgid, even shrill (an opinion I will admit to having once believed) gradually won over critics. In Joshi’s view, Lovecraft’s work inspired other authors, filmmakers, and graphic artists because “there is such an abundance of striking visual effects and compelling dramatic action in some of Lovecraft’s scenarios that they can be manipulated into a wide array of media.”

The Final Word

Joshi’s passion for Lovecraft shines through on every page. That enthusiasm complements vast research to produce an enjoyable voyage of discovery for either the HPL fan or any lover of good writing. Unpretentious and straightforward, this overview of the world’s gradual recognition of an underappreciated talent is entertaining and enlightening.  (Don’t miss chapter 9, “Dissemination and Controversy,” which includes Joshi’s thoughts on why a materialist like Lovecraft wrote about ghosts and demons.) That recognition will continue to grow, because, as Joshi concludes, “H. P. Lovecraft has proven himself a man and writer of the ages. His fame has expanded so far beyond what he could have imagined as itself to constitute a ‘weird tale’ of the most spectacularly bizarre sort.”

Just one more thing …

Publicity photo for Columbo

My mother, an enthusiastic reader of crime and mystery stories, got me hooked on the original Columbo series back in the 70s. During our latest family get-together for New Year’s, my wife and I spent the night with her. The Sundance channel ran a Columbo marathon over the weekend, and of course, we watched several classic episodes together. It was great to spend time with my mom and revisit old memories.

Much of the series’ appeal was its implied critique of fashionable debauchery. Detective Columbo was solidly middle class, as was his code of ethics. Though he often assured suspects he was “only doing his job,” he was actually defending blue-collar values. His suspects were affluent and rootless jet-setters. Besides being murderers, they casually resorted to blackmail, adultery, and theft to get what they wanted. Columbo never lectured or grandstanded about his morality, but championed it through the way he lived his life.

For example, in “Sex and the Married Detective,” a world-famous sex therapist suggests Columbo should attend one of her workshops to loosen him up. He turns her down with his usual politeness and propriety: “Oh, but I’m a married man.” To Columbo, that meant something. It also meant something to his fans.

The show was funny, too. Here’s an exchange that could’ve fit into a scene from “Naked Gun”:

Columbo: So far, sir, we don’t have a thing.
Nelson Hayward: Well, that’s heartening.
Columbo: Officially, that is.
Nelson Hayward: And unofficially?
Columbo: Unofficially, we don’t have anything either.

And then there were the running gags, which were highlighted for me by seeing them in back-to-back episodes. Columbo was always borrowing things and forgetting to return them. I don’t know how many times I saw him borrow a pen or a lighter and absent-mindedly walk off with them. The owner always had to remind him to return their property, to his red-faced embarrassment.

The Columbo marathon was great entertainment and heady inspiration for anyone who writes mysteries. My mother, still going strong at 91, thoroughly enjoyed it. After a traditional Southern New Year’s feast of pork, cabbage, black-eyed peas and pecan pie, it was a much-appreciated trip down memory lane.