Collected Essays Volume 3: Science by H.P. Lovecraft edited by S.T. Joshi (book review).

One of the things that isn’t well known about H.P. Lovecraft is that the first thing he ever had published wasn’t a story or even a poem but a letter to the editor of the ‘Providence Sunday Journal’ pointing out the scientific impossibility of the ‘transit of Mars’ that had been described by an astrologer in the previous issue of the paper.

This letter, from 1906, would have been written when he was about 16 years old and, regardless of its literary merits, indicates the keen interest the young Lovecraft had in science. What Joshi usefully does here in ‘Collected Essays 3: Science’ is pull together the surviving articles and manuscripts into a readable format that is, frankly, absolutely fascinating. Anyone with even the vaguest interest in amateur astronomy will find a kindred spirit in Lovecraft and his enthusiasm for the subject shines through the monthly reports he compiled for various local newspapers. Also included are personal observing reports, which include useful descriptions of his equipment, apparently a three-inch refractor on an alt-azimuth stand, and eyepieces.

Frequently, these columns and articles include copious notes on the mythological details behind the names of the stars and constellations. But it would be a mistake to assume that Lovecraft was purely a gentleman amateur here, dwelling on the ancients and having little interest in what was going on in contemporary science. In fact, Lovecraft was living through one of the most important periods in the development of astronomy and some of the columns and letters expound upon these changes.

This is, for example, the moment in time when the canals of Mars are considered a scientific possibility. In 1906, when writing an essay for the ‘Pawtuxet Valley Gleaner’, Lovecraft apparently agreed with Percival Lowell’s theory that the Martian canals were evidence for intelligent life, going so far as to describe this idea as ‘possible, even probable’. But, by 1915, he had evidently changed his mind and, in the ‘Ashville Gazette News’, describes the idea as ‘grotesque’.

Similarly, this is the point where the size of the universe is starting to become clearer, with the various nebulae (literally: clouds) visible through telescopes starting to be recognised as a collection of very different objects, what nowadays we would distinguish as galaxies, globular clusters, supernova remnants and so on. In 1906, Lovecraft writes about the nebulae collectively as clouds of glowing gas, which was the most common point of view at the time. During the 1920s, this would be resolved with the sheer distance of the galaxies being established by the likes of Edwin Hubble. Unfortunately, Lovecraft’s scientific writing peters out by 1915, by which time he has become a prolific writer of fiction for the amateur press.

Still, what is important is how vehemently Lovecraft writes about astrology. For those who sometimes like to see him as somehow privy to unearthly secrets, it’s important to realise that Lovecraft was a confirmed sceptic when it came to anything even remotely supernatural in flavour. S.T. Joshi includes a number of published letters from newspaper wherein Lovecraft crossed swords with an astrologer by the name of Hartmann who was featured in the paper.

These convey not just his disdain for charlatans, but also his willingness to engage with those he thought were misusing their talents, a conception far removed from the usual idea of Lovecraft as the reclusive introvert. In fact, satire was something Lovecraft was fond of using and, through the letters penned under the name of ‘Isaac Bickerstaff’, he lampoons the astrologer’s art through their use of language and carefully vague predictions.

Astronomy and, to a far lesser degree meteorology, dominate the ‘Collected Essays Volume 3’, which perhaps fits in with the sort of fiction that Lovecraft went on to write. He frequently drew on his astronomical knowledge to give his stories some of their distinctive colour. ‘Polaris’, for example, doesn’t just use the star’s name for its title, but depends upon the concept of precession to determine how far back in time the story has to go for Polaris to be, as it is now, precisely over the North Pole. But what Lovecraft writes relatively little about here is biology, which if anything, was an even more important source of ideas. Lovecraft was obsessed with what was, at the time, the biological concept of races.

His views on race have been discussed amply elsewhere and need not be detailed here, but a single short essay included in this book do provide a little insight. This was a preface to an article by Peter MacManus in the ‘Providence Amateur’ entitled ‘The Irish And The Fairies’. MacManus, it would seem, was describing the Irish idea of fairies as memories of something real, but Lovecraft is having none of that and instead prefers to explain the fairies as a hangover from old Indo-European legends.

Joshi also includes a longer piece of text taken from a letter sent to Wilfred Talman in 1932 that greatly elaborates on this anthropological rather than mystical explanation of fairyland. One of the key parts of this explanation is the idea that the various little people such as dwarfs and fairies of northern myths may somehow relate to encounters with non-Indo-European peoples such as Finns and Lapps or even the Neanderthals. It almost goes without saying that the words used to describe these non-Indo-Europeans are unflattering.

Joshi has done a tremendous job here editing the various essays, letters, articles and manuscripts. These are organised first by where they were published and then by date. An appendix details his juvenilia, the scope and range of which is truly astonishing, running from inorganic chemistry through to railroad engineering. ‘Collected Essays Volume 3’ also includes numerous drawings, giving readers a rare opportunity to see Lovecraft though a medium other than the written word. These are primarily star charts and maps of the night sky, but also include a few sketches of celestial objects.

Overall, this is a fabulous book that opens a whole new side of Lovecraft that will be unfamiliar to most of his fans. His non-fiction writing is succinct, clear and easy to follow, something rarely said about his fiction. As a science writer, it’d be easy to dismiss him as a gentleman amateur, but that’s not at all the impression you get from Joshi’s book. Rather, he’s a man who may be largely self-taught but uses scientific instruments to collect data, takes copious notes and reads as widely as he can to keep up with current thinking. While nobody would call Lovecraft a scientist, what this collection does well is show that he was certainly scientifically literate.

Neale Monks

February 2021

(pub: Hippocampus Press, 2010. 366 page paperback. Price: $20.00 (US). ISBN: 978-0-97487-898-0)

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