Howard Phillips Lovecraft certainly could write. And the many books and stories bearing his byline are ample proof of that.
In a world filled with pastiches, spoofs, and sequels (trust me, I know—I’ve edited a couple of those volumes myself), Lovecraft is the real thing.
Although it has become fashionable by some contemporary critics to decry the author’s somewhat archaic and eldritch writing style, there is no doubt that Lovecraft knew exactly what he was doing, and like Edgar Allan Poe—who he both admired and now rivals in influence—he was an American stylist of the highest order.
My own introduction to Lovecraft’s work occurred in 1969 when, at the age of sixteen, I came across a paperback edition of Dagon and Other Macabre Tales in a local Woolworth’s branch. I was initially attracted to the book by the distinctive black-and-white illustration on the cover, but the stories it contained were a revelation to me.
Within a year I had tracked down and read every major story Lovecraft had ever written. And despite having collected the author’s work in many rare and original editions over the years, I still have the very same copy of that first paperback on my shelf, almost forty years later.
However, once I had exhausted Lovecraft’s relatively small body of work, I started searching around for other stories in a similar vein.
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Born in his grandparents’ house in Providence, Rhode Island, on August 20, 1890, H. P. Lovecraft led a somewhat sheltered life as a child. Because of an apparent nervous disorder, he was treated as a semi-invalid by his protective mother and her indulgent family, and this coddled seclusion allowed the young boy to read a great many books.
A lifelong Anglophile as a result of his family’s paternal English ancestry, Lovecraft had an old-fashioned writing style that may not have appealed to many contemporary readers, and he was easily discouraged when things did not go his way. Yet, despite all of these tribulations, his work has survived and flourished in the seventy years since his premature death.
This is because Lovecraft had an imagination second-to-none. Most famously, he created a pantheon of ancient Gods and alien deities in a series of loosely connected stories that later came to be called the “Cthulhu Mythos.”
Even during his lifetime, Lovecraft’s concepts were added to by an ever-widening circle of writers. It has been argued that Lovecraft did not actively encourage these pastiches, although at first they were mostly written by his friends, correspondents, and fellow writers from the legendary pulp magazine Weird Tales. These, most notably, included August W. Derleth, Robert E. Howard, Robert Bloch, Clark Ashton Smith, and Frank Belknap Long.
It was also Lovecraft’s habit to adopt the inventions of his friends—such as the names of demonic divinities and cursed tomes of eldritch lore—and give them his seal of approval by incorporating them into his own fiction.
However, there also exists a converse group of stories that exhibit a much more personal involvement by the author, even if his name invariably did not appear on the originally published byline.
Despite his devotion to the actual craft of writing, Lovecraft’s attitude to his own work often bordered on the dismissive, if not downright lazy. Although he made a meager living as a commercial writer, he rarely considered markets. He was as likely to have his work published in an amateur press publication for little or no reward as he was to see his name on the cover of a newsstand pulp magazine that invariably still only paid its contributors a pittance.
In his early twenties Lovecraft became immersed with the amateur journalism movement. He was also an inveterate letter writer, churning out an average of eight to ten letters a day, each usually four to eight pages in length, to a wide circle of correspondents, when he should have been producing more fiction.
Much of Lovecraft’s writing was done in longhand with a fountain pen, and he hated revising or retyping his work (to the extent that others would sometimes do it for him). If a particular story was rejected by a specific market he had submitted it to, Lovecraft would more likely become despondent than try to sell the tale elsewhere: “Rejections are so numerous lately that I think I’ll stop writing for a while & use the time in revision,” he wrote to correspondent August Derleth.
As an author he wrote what he wanted, and when that did not pay the bills, he turned to rewriting other people’s stories—often so extensively that they became wholly his own work.
This was the case with “The Crawling Chaos,” an early dream-narrative written with the amateur poet Winifred Virginia Jackson and published under the double pseudonyms Lewis Theobold, Jr., and Elizabeth Neville Berkley in The United Co-operative, an amateur magazine.
With money always tight, and as a method of subsidizing his precarious income, Lovecraft provided a literary revision service, giving advice and suggestions where needed, or completely changing the work of some of his less talented clients. In fact, these (usually uncredited) revisions became Lovecraft’s major source of income, with his own fiction merely a sideline. Although much of this work consisted of correcting spelling, punctuation and grammar, or copying out manuscript pages, he would sometimes entirely revise and rewrite a story, retaining only its title or the nucleus of the plot if its content inspired his imagination.
Among the amateur authors whose work he substantially rewrote or revised were U.S. consul Adolphe de Castro; family friend and fellow Providence resident C. M. Eddy, Jr.; Lovecraft’s future literary executor Robert H. Barlow; writer and editor Wilfred Blanch Talman; midwest journalist and romance writer Zealia B. Bishop; Massachusetts divorcée Hazel Heald; world traveler William Lumley; Lovecraft’s future wife Sonia H. Greene (Davis); and even the famous magician and escape artist Harry Houdini (Ehrich Weiss), all of whom went on to sell their fiction to Weird Tales.
“He would criticize paragraph after paragraph and pencil remarks beside them,” recalled Hazel Heald, “and then make me rewrite them until they pleased him.”
It was also through this service that Lovecraft added stories by such writers as Bishop, Heald, Lumley, and Frank Belknap Long to the burgeoning “Cthulhu Mythos.”
“The stories I sent him always came back so revised from their basic idea that I felt I was a complete failure as a writer,” Zealia Bishop remembered. “As a writer and instructor in the field of supernatural fiction he was an undisputed master, and another’s work seldom pleased him when he first saw it. He could always find much to improve, and he was generous with his advice, drawing on a vast store of knowledge quite beyond the capacity of the average man of education of his or our time.”
Bishop felt so grateful to Lovecraft that when her story “Medusa’s Coil” ultimately appeared in the January 1939 issue of Weird Tales, she stipulated that half the fee ($120) should be paid to his surviving aunt, Annie E. P. Gamwell. “My debt to Lovecraft is great,” Bishop admitted. “I count myself fortunate that I was one of his epistolary friends and pupils.”
The Horror in the Museum contains some of the best of these “revisions” or, as they should more properly be called, “collaborations.” If not quite up to the standard of Lovecraft’s own finest work, such tales as C. M. Eddy’s controversial “The Loved Dead,” Robert H. Barlow’s “Till A’ the Seas,” Hazel Heald’s “Out of the Aeons” and “The Horror in the Burying-Ground,” William Lumley’s “The Diary of Alonzo Typer,” and Zealia Bishop’s “The Curse of Yig,” “Medusa’s Coil,” and the short novel “The Mound,” along with the title story itself, are all worthy of being considered minor gems in the canon of weird fiction. This is not really so surprising when you recognize that, as August Derleth so succinctly pointed out, “Lovecraft wrote most of what is mem orable in them!”
But for me, the greatest thrill of buying this book when I was still a teenager was discovering that I shared my name (and its particular spelling) with the doomed protagonist of the Lovecraft-Hazel Heald collaboration “The Horror in the Museum.” Not only that, but the story is atypically set in London—just across the River Thames from where I was born!
Reading this tale, I have never felt closer to the writer whose work helped shaped my own career in the field of macabre fiction.
Copyright © 2009 by H.P. Lovecraft. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.