On H.P. Lovecraft

PRINT PAGE |

While I was grateful for the length and detail of Samuel Francis's review ("At the Heart of Darkness," May) of my biography of Lovecraft and my edition of Lovecraft's Miscellaneous Writings, there are some serious errors and misconceptions in the review that require correction. First, it's peculiar that Mr. Francis begins his review asserting that Lovecraft's "life and writing career . . . can only be judged failures" and yet concludes by saying that he was "one of America's last free men, living his life as he wanted to live it" and that his supernatural fiction will survive "as long as that genre of literature is read at all." If this is failure, I can hardly imagine what success is like.

Mr. Francis also seems to have a difficult time with Lovecraft's philosophy of cosmic indifferentism, whereby the vastness (both spatially and temporally) of the universe necessitates the belief in the inconsequence (on the cosmic scale) of humanity. He refers to it as a "dismal creed" and feels that it was "something of a crutch for an emotional cripple." It does not seem to have occurred to him that the philosophy is very likely to be true. It accords with all the findings of science, and Lovecraft repeated it frequently in essays and correspondence not because he was somehow maniacally attached to it but because he knew that it was an unusual worldview that others—especially those nurtured on the comforting falsehoods of religion—would find a "dismal creed."

It is absurd to call Lovecraft a "Nazi"—I do not think Mr. Francis realizes what he is saying here. Lovecraft was one of many in England and America who welcomed Hitler's rise to power in 1955 (as a means of reviving Germany after what were believed to be the unfair conditions imposed upon it by the Versailles Treaty), but he did apparently repudiate Hitler in late 1936 when he heard from an acquaintance who had just returned from Germany how the Nazi regime was treating the Jews. Remember that Lovecraft died in 1937, long before the true horrors of the Nazi regime were revealed. Incidentally, Mr. Francis is diametrically wrong in saying that I maintain that "Lovecraft's racialism was largely irrelevant to his writing"; I have long believed that Lovecraft's racial views are critical to understanding much of his literary work, and I explore this in detail in my biography. What I do maintain is that the intellectual error of racism does not necessarily vitiate the rest of Lovecraft's philosophy, which has substantial merits of its own.

It does not appear that Mr. Francis is very familiar with Lovecraft beyond what he has found in the books under review. Lovecraft is indeed a very difficult writer and thinker to assimilate, and Mr. Francis will pardon me if I say that he has plenty of homework to do. Still, his diligence at least is to be commended.

        —S.T. Joshi
New York, NY

Dr. Francis Replies:

I have to admit that it is a rare compliment to be praised for my "diligence" by a man who has spent his life writing a 700-page biography of Lovecraft, reediting four volumes of the stories of Lovecraft, coediting at least five more volumes of the letters of Lovecraft, compiling a bibliography of Lovecraft, editing two collections of essays about Lovecraft, editing another collection of the journalism of Lovecraft, writing a monograph about Lovecraft, and editing several anthologies of the fiction of Lovecraft. I am always prepared to be instructed in my "homework" on Lovecraft by such a scholar, even if the frequently crippled prose and thought of the man who is clearly the only subject Mr. Joshi can talk about is a bit too "difficult" for such beginners as me.

In fact, I read all of Lovecraft's stories 30-some years ago, and have reread the better of them over the years since, as well as De Camp's biography and various portions of Lovecraft's letters. While I readily recognize that Mr. Joshi is without peer in the World's Greatest H.P. Lovecraft Expert contest, I think I know a little about his subject and have long maintained an interest in it.

I do not see how the life and writing career of a man and professional writer who was unable to complete high school, unable to hold a job, unable to sustain a marriage to a woman who loved him, unable to support himself by his writing, unable to attract serious critical attention, and unable to publish a single book during his lifetime can be judged anything but failures. Nor do I see any contradiction between that judgment and my conclusion that Lovecraft's best work will survive as long as people read the kind of stories he wrote. Lovecraft's life and career were failures; his writing itself, at least at its best, was not.

I do not "have a difficult time with Lovecraft's philosophy," but someone should explain to Mr. Joshi that the belief that the universe and human life are meaningless is neither new nor unquestioned. For that matter, while Mr. Joshi may find this view of life invigorating, most people do indeed regard it as "dismal," whether it is true or not.

Lovecraft seems to have been fond of trotting out his philosophy whenever he was at the point of retreating from some personal challenge that ordinary people do not usually find difficult. That is one reason I suggested it was a "crutch" for his obviously abnormal personality; by denying that life has any meaning, Lovecraft could absolve himself of conventional social and personal responsibilities. But I also made clear my view that Lovecraft's worldview was a serious one that he held, expressed, and developed in a serious way.

I did not quite call Lovecraft a "Nazi." I wrote that he was "an extreme reactionary and racialist, if not an outright Nazi." I qualified this description precisely because I recognize that Lovecraft's attitude toward Hitler and the Nazis was complicated, but it is hardly "absurd" to say that "one . . . who welcomed Hitler's rise to power in 1933" was a Nazi. What else would Mr. Joshi call a person who welcomed Hitler's rise to power?

Mr. Joshi says Lovecraft repudiated Hitler "in late 1936," and so he did, as I mentioned in the review. But Lovecraft died in March 1937, which means that for most of the time Hitler was in power during Lovecraft's life, he had not repudiated him. Lovecraft did express concern about the Versailles Treaty, and he disliked the brutishness of the Nazis, but what mainly attracted him to Hitler was the ideological content of German National Socialism—its authoritarianism, its elitism, its racialism, its anti- Semitism, and its socialism. His sympathy for these doctrines was such that it would be perfectly reasonable to call him a Nazi, and on that basis alone he would certainly be so described today, regardless of whatever reservations he expressed about Hitler and his policies.

In any case, I do not and did not judge Lovecraft or anyone else on the validity of his beliefs but on his personal conduct, and whatever he believed or whenever he believed it, I see no moral flaw in Lovecraft simply for holding a particular opinion, whether the opinion was right or wrong. Perhaps when Mr. Joshi completes his expeditions into the life, letters, and laundry lists of his favorite subject, he will find time to peruse my review with as much attention as he has devoted to his hero.

On Science Fiction, R.I.P.

I don't think I disagree with any of Thomas Bertonneau's negative remarks ("Science Fiction, R.I.P.," May) about what is passed off as science fiction today. But the situation is far less gloomy than he fears. There are plenty of hard science fiction writers, with a sound backing in science and philosophy, and genuinely spiritual concerns. Consider, for example, Stephen Baxter, Gregory Benford, C.J. Cherryh, C.A. Effinger, Peter Hamilton, John Varley. There are even some excellent fantasy writers who evade Thomas Bertonneau's strictures: John Crowley, Patricia McKillip, Sheri Tepper. Even Robert Jordan, whose work is generally classified as junk, actually writes intelligently, and absorbingly, about treachery and temptation.

The Stapleton Archive is housed here at the University of Liverpool, along with the Science Fiction Foundation Library. Inquiries from would-be scholars of the subject are welcomed.

        —Stephen R.L. Clark,
Dean, Faculty of Arts
University of Liverpool
Liverpool, England

Print

You have not viewed any products recently.