Collected Essays Volume 4: Travel by HP Lovecraft and edited by ST Joshi (book review).

April 7, 2022 | By | Reply More

Famously, more interested in the architectural atmosphere of a place than the people who lived there, Lovecraft was surprising well-travelled, albeit within the eastern seaboard of North America between Florida and Quebec. But did travel broaden his mind? Did seeing new places simply reinforce his prejudices about them? Did he even understand architecture and its connection with social history nearly as well as he thought?

These are questions the reviewer hoped to have answered by reading this well-curated collection of essays. ST Joshi is, of course, one of the foremost experts on Lovecraft and has selected a variety of manuscripts that give a good impression of the sorts of travel writing Lovecraft did. Mostly, these are drafts of letters, diary entries or travelogues he eventually submitted to the amateur press. One that went unpublished in his lifetime, ‘A Description Of The Town Of Quebeck, In New France, Lately Added To His Britannick Majesty’s Dominions’, is of remarkable length at more than 120 pages and takes up more than a third of the book.

Inevitably, then, the essays vary in their readability. The aforementioned piece on Quebec is longer than any of Lovecraft’s fiction and you’d have to be really interested in the history and architecture of Quebec to read the whole thing in one fell swoop. But, in itself, it is a fascinating piece, as much for what it says about Lovecraft as it does about Quebec. Joshi has included facsimiles of various maps and sketches that Lovecraft made, including drawings of interesting buildings that highlight the sorts of things he was interested in.

The frontispiece is remarkable, mimicking those made by 18th century publishers. Lovecraft adds the word ‘Armiger’ after his name, implying the right to bear a coat of arms, which says a lot about how he saw himself. The spelling throughout the essay veers towards the archaic, such as ‘tragicall ingulphment’ when describing the fate, he fears, of the Thirteen Colonies lost to the King after the ‘unhappy warfare’ of 1775-1777.

On the other hand, when Lovecraft talks about the present state of Quebec and its architecture, he is much more objective. He has a keen if amateur eye for details and, together with his sketches, his descriptions of the buildings of Quebec are often charming. HPL knows what he likes and what he likes is tradition. For a confirmed atheist, his descriptions of the different churches highlight this delicate but superficial taste. Certain silvery spires evoked for him a sense of ‘magical gateways’ to ‘dream-worlds of exotick wonder’, but his dismisses the French-Canadian churchgoers as suffering from a ‘priest-ridden psychology’.

Other essays give insight into Lovecraft the traveller and, through him, so much of the detail that went into his stories. Two of the earlier essays, ‘The Trip Of Theobold’ and ‘Vermont – A First Impression’, are strikingly similar to some parts of stories such as ‘The Whisperer In Darkness’ or ‘The Shadow Over Innsmouth’. Mentions of such things as cheap tickets, nights at the YMCA and the scenery visible from trains and buses would be recycled into the experiences of the protagonists. In a sense, when people today talk of a ‘Lovecraft Country’, what they really mean is a fictionalised version of 1920s New England as captured by Lovecraft in his writings. Essays such as these, then, provide a glimpse into what made HPL’s fictional landscapes as authentic as Hardy’s Wessex or Steinbeck’s California.

A more curious set of essays is set forth under the ‘European Glimpses’ heading. Lovecraft never sailed abroad, let alone visited the European cities described in these essays. Joshi points out that while these essays are written in the first person, they’re actually rewrites of travelogues made by Sonia Greene on her visit to Europe in 1932. Lovecraft and Greene were, albeit briefly, married. These essays reveal as much about HPL as anything else in this book. His Anglophilia shines through the essay on London, as well as his particular interest in the Georgian Age and such personages as Johnson and Hogarth.

One of the two essays on Germany includes some surprising paragraphs on Hitler. Greene was Jewish and presumably had little affection for Hitler, though in 1932, how much of his antisemitism would have been apparent to Green is hard to know. But one might assume that HPL would be sympathetic to Hitler, but the description of Hitler at a political rally is far from friendly.

The impression gained from this book is that Lovecraft had a keen eye, but didn’t really care to see anything that didn’t appeal to him. His travels across North America were limited to those parts largely colonised by the English, French and Dutch and what he wanted to see were the remains of those colonies, whether physical or human.

The essay ‘Charleston’, for example, says remarkably little about Black Americans, doing little more than mentioning their existence. Lovecraft has no problems describing churches or even slave markets, but attaches little to no importance to them beyond their architecture. Still, the essays are fascinating in their way, giving an insight into a man who wrote stories where the landscape was often given more character than any of the protagonists.

Gently edited by Joshi, the limited notes he provides at the end of each essay are insightful and give context, but what’s lacking is an overall synthesis. Perhaps that’s not really the goal of a volume like this and it’s up to the reader to make their own mind up about Lovecraft the traveller.

Neale Monks

April 2022

(pub: Hippocampus Press, 2010. 288 page small enlarged paperback. Price: $20.00 (UK) – its cheaper to buy off them direct. ISBN: 097615-921-X)

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