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.”