The Curious Case of H.P. Lovecraft
by Paul Roland
(London: Plexus Publishing Ltd., November 2014. 328 pp.
Trade paperback. UK £14.99. US $19.95)
Reviewed by Darrell Schweitzer
Now, before there is any distracting talk of pots and kettles of similar hue, let me be the first to admit that there have been bad books about H.P. Lovecraft before, among the worst of which is my own The Dream Quest of H.P. Lovecraft (1978) which was, I think, fairly enough dismissed by S.T. Joshi as “hardly worth the paper it’s printed on.” It was an attempt at a popular guide, which would condense available scholarship and present it to the beginning reader in an easily palatable form. It wasn’t. The difference between 1978 and now is that a huge amount of progress has been made in Lovecraft studies, so that Paul Roland had a lot more to make a mess out of, and, I am sorry to report, he has.
L. Sprague de Camp’s Lovecraft: a Biography (1975) assembled most of the basic factual data, but was flawed by an attempt to interpret Lovecraft in terms of de Camp’s own prejudices. S.T. Joshi’s several times revised, vastly superior, two-volume I Am Providence (2010) is the product of decades of work. It amplifies and corrects de Camp, and explores Lovecraft thought to such greater depth that it must truly be considered definitive. In the post-Joshian era, of course, more books about Lovecraft will inevitably appear, but all that remains for later commentators is to condense, popularize, or re-interpret what Joshi has done. This is of course possible. Something similar happened with Edgar Rice Burroughs. Irwin Porges’s Edgar Rice Burroughs: The Man Who Created Tarzan (1975) is the vast and definitive tome, but this did not prevent John Taliaferro from producing a very readable and useful condensed version, Tarzan Forever, in 1999.
That Paul Roland is not a particularly compelling writer could be excused if his book contained any real, new insights, but, alas. . . . His approach is thoroughly non-scholarly. Minimal bibliography, no index, no citations for passages quoted from stories and letters. An experienced Lovecraftian will recognize most of them, but for the new reader, these quotes must seem to just pop out of the air. Candidly, the most insightful way to read this book is to do so from the perspective of a knowledge of Lovecraft superior to Roland’s own. This, for anyone who’s kept up at all with Lovecraftian studies, should not be hard to do.
The first enormous, gaping lack we notice is an almost total failure to address what is one of Joshi’s strengths: the explication of Lovecraft’s thought and how his philosophical development influenced his aesthetics. The words “mechanistic materialism” turn up on page 146, but without a good grounding in critical writings outside of this book, you might have no idea what the phrase means or why it is important.
Not necessarily with malice aforethought, but with a thinking sense of disappointment, one starts to take notes. Here are some of mine:
Page 19. HPL’s grandfather was Whipple Van Buren Phillips, not Whipple Van Buren.
Page 41. Roland seems to have no idea what the amateur journalism movement was. Amateur journals with 10,000 readers nationwide? Really?
Page 70. Roland clearly does not understand the Dunsanian echoes in “The Terrible Old Man.” His grasp of Dunsany and Dunsany’s influence on Lovecraft seems slight.
Page 82. It seems unhelpful to compare “Ex Oblivione” with the work of Franz Kafka, since Kafka was unknown in English at the time Lovecraft was writing and Lovecraft never made any mention of him.
Page 109. Just plain bad writing gets Roland into real trouble when he writes that Farnsworth Wright “would reject several of Lovecraft’s most important stories (‘At the Mountains of Madness,’ ‘The Shadow Over Innsmouth,’ and ‘The Call of Cthulhu’ among others), only to accept them at a later date when he was in a more amenable mood.”
To a newcomer this would seem a straightforward statement that Wright rejected, then published “At the Mountains of Madness” and “The Shadow Over Innsmouth” which, as someone who knows Lovecraft better than Roland does (and their ranks will seem to be swelling as you work your way through this book), nothing of the sort ever happened. Only “The Call of Cthulhu,” of the three stories mentioned, was first rejected, then published by Weird Tales. It is another matter entirely that Roland seriously underestimates the abilities and importance of Farnsworth Wright, who, despite excessive concern that too-sophisticated stories wouldn’t go over well with his not-very-bright readership, was the architect of the magazine’s greatness and one of the most important figures in 20th century weird fiction. Without Farnsworth Wright there would have been no market for most of the writings of Lovecraft, or Clark Ashton Smith, or Henry Whitehead, or Robert E. Howard (at least Howard’s fantasy), or so many others.
Page 135. “Lovecraft used no maps” in his creations. Yes he did. His maps of Arkham and Innsmouth are still extant, and have been reproduced many times.
But there is no need to go on like this. Roland begins well enough with a pretty good description of Lovecraft’s childhood and adolescence, but things go downhill rapidly thereafter. This book fails is in any attempt to give a clear sense of Lovecraft’s personality, his outlook, or what much of his life was like. Indeed, after a while, Roland seems to have forgotten he’s writing a biography and goes in more and more for wannabe literary analysis, which is no better than his analysis of character.
Had he contented himself with regurgitating and condensing Joshi, he might have escaped without too much adverse notice, but disaster strikes as he attempts to introduce his own, original ideas. He is in serious trouble by page 33 where he tries to apply a highly dubious diagnosis of Asperger’s Syndrome to explain both Lovecraft’s social behavior and the lack of conventional characterization in his stories. (Joshi explained the latter in terms of aesthetics, quoting Lovecraft’s letters extensively to identify what Lovecraft thought was important in fiction.) There is an absurd statement on page 145 about Lovecraft’s reluctance to write fiction “on spec.” No, other than such commissioned jobs as the Home Brew stories and “Imprisoned with the Pharaohs,” which was a ghost-writing job for Houdini, every piece of fiction Lovecraft ever wrote was “on spec,” i.e. written without a guaranteed sale in front of him. Lovecraft, the ultimate gentleman amateur, never took such things into consideration before he sat down to write, and any would-be biographer who doesn’t understand that clearly has no understanding of how Lovecraft thought or conducted his career.
On page 144 there is another absurdity, that the alien “colour” in “The Colour Out of Space” is “too abstract to be threatening,” to which, I should think, at least Nahum Gardner and his clan would take exception.
But, enough nitpicking. I have noted on page 134: “shallow Age of Aquarius nonsense – how long ago was 1968?” Bit by bit we get a sinking feeling about Paul Roland, which is hideously confirmed on page 195, when the author suggests that Lovecraft did not take his dreams seriously enough:
Had he studied theosophy or any other spiritual discipline rather than dismissing them out of hand, he would have discovered that what he assumed to be a sense of insignificance was instead an awareness of an infinitesimal but vital part of a greater reality. Vital in the sense that becoming aware of the existence of one’s immortal True Self (also known in the esoteric tradition as the Higher self) cannot but engender a positive attitude and end the illusion of “suffering” – as the Buddhists call it – which stems from our temporary separation from the divine source. It is the realization that the notorious magician Aleister Crowley expressed in the maxim: “Every man and woman a star.”
And the knowledge that while we may be physically separate from other sentient beings, we are at our very essence part of what Jung called the collective unconscious, or what the esotericists term the universal mind. It is this shared pool of past experience and accumulated knowledge that Lovecraft appears to have glimpsed in the deepest phase of sleep. In creating his dark pantheon of gods and monsters he gave form to his readers’ fears of the unknown, both in this world and the one beyond.
Gee, that reminds me of the fan I met once who offered to “prove by logic” that all the lore in the Lovecraft stories was true, and received “telepathically from another dimension.”
The technical term we used to use for such persons is “New Age bozo.” Here Paul Roland out-does de Camp a thousand fold, trying to force his own (very silly, mystical) ideas onto his subject, then taking HPL to task for not being an occultist, as Roland very clearly seems to be. By the way, Lovecraft did know something about Theosophy, though he remarked that its imaginings were far too cheerful for his tastes, and of course he knew that Madame Blavatsky was a humbug. Lovecraft did not just dismiss such notions “out of hand,” but concluded, through careful study and consideration, that they had no validity. The reason he did not recognize any “immortal True Self” or “soul” is that he did not believe in them. To Lovecraft, biological life was an electro-chemical phenomenon of no great consequence in the cosmos at large. His sense of insignificance was just that, a sense of insignificance. That is also the main theme or message of all of Lovecraft’s writings, and Roland apparently doesn’t get it at all.
The whole shoddy construction of The Curious Case of H.P. Lovecraft comes crashing down. While the dust settles, we are surprised to learn (p. 218) that The Outsider and Others has always remained in print, that Ramsey Campbell is a contemporary of Lovecraft, or even (p. 188) that Lin Carter was a woman. Sorry, folks. This book is rubbish. Maybe my The Dream Quest of H.P. Lovecraft wasn’t as bad as this after all. It was merely shallow and sloppy. This is actively misleading.
There is a need for a short, easily readable guide to Lovecraft’s life and work. I can recommend two, the foremost being Joshi’s H.P. Lovecraft: Nightmare Countries (2012) and Peter Cannon’s H.P. Lovecraft in the Twayne Authors Series (1989). But not this. The allegedly special features in the Roland volume aren’t so special either. He reprints HPL’s “History and Chronology of the Necronomicon” as an appendix, but of course that is available elsewhere; and he also includes the original newspaper version of Sonia Greene’s memoir of her marriage to HPL. The newspaper version may have minor textual variances, but the definitive version is in Cannon’s Lovecraft Remembered. There is a brief summary of Lovecraft adaptations in movies, comics, and games, something Joshi did not attempt; but considering the source, hardly trustworthy.
Nothing of interest here. Move along.