Each year, the ‘Lovecraft Annual’ collects various essays, reviews and articles by or about H.P. Lovecraft. As such, it’s a heterogenous mix and, while not every piece included will appeal to everybody, there’s bound to be a few pieces that justify the modest price of admission. Certainly, this year’s collection is as varied as ever, ranging from hitherto unpublished correspondence through to discussions on the literary influences upon Lovecraft’s style and subject matter.
While there isn’t space here to critique every one of the fourteen articles in this collection, some brief comments on a few of them should give a sense of its range and worth.
The first piece is correspondence between Lovecraft and Robert Hayward Barlow from 1935. It appears that Barlow and Lovecraft were together drafting an essay on the subject of national defence which was used by Barlow’s father, a colonel in the army, for an article in ‘The Californian’. This piece is included in this edition of the ‘Lovecraft Annual’ and together they raise various points of interest. One of them is how fully the older Barlow took on board Lovecraft’s comments and turns of phrase. For example, Lovecraft puts forward the idea that pacifists decry war perhaps unsurprisingly but immediately adds that pacifists are right to do so.
A much more surprising attitude given his affection for north European warrior cultures. Furthermore, Barlow senior takes up Lovecraft’s additional argument that until war can be eliminated we should at least prepare for it. Being a military man, he develops this theme, explaining the role a strong army and navy have in maintaining peace by dissuading aggressors. Another point of interest is in contrasting the writing styles of Lovecraft with R.H. Barlow, who would himself go on to enjoy a successful career as an author and historian until committing suicide at the age of 32, apparently in fear that his homosexuality would become public knowledge.
Where Lovecraft is perceptive but idealistic in his arguments, Barlow writes in a more engaging and persuasive way: contrast the use of ‘fortune’ by Lovecraft where Barlow uses ‘lucky’ in the same context. But on the other hand, Barlow would have been about 17 at the time and clearly very impressionable, taking on board Lovecraft’s arguments largely in their entirety.
The third essay is a very welcome piece, almost rehabilitating one of Lovecraft’s less well regarded pieces, ‘The Colour Of Out Space’. Although frequently admired for expressing cosmic horror in a way that defies simple explanation, compared with, say, ‘The Shadow Out Of Time’, it feels less accessible. There’s less drama and fewer relatable characters and instead the story depends upon atmosphere more than anything else. What Steven Mariconda does here is to argue that the atmosphere is much more than merely a list of descriptions. Instead, as he explains most convincingly, Lovecraft uses a range of literary devices to create an impression upon the reader.
For example, Lovecraft never directly describes the Colour but instead describes a series of consequences on the more mundane things around it. Mariconda further elaborates this by comparing the writing style here with the painting styles of the likes of Turner and Poussin. Colours are, after all, experiences our brain synthesises in response to certain stimuli and as Mariconda explains, Lovecraft is doing the same thing here with his Colour, which elicits particular experiences but is not, in itself, a tangible thing from our world that we can touch or describe. The Colour goes on to affect the world of the protagonists, and Lovecraft uses word play of the most subtle and sophisticated sort to share all of this on the reader. Put another way, ‘The Colour Of Out Space’ may not be the most popular of Lovecraft’s longer stories but it’s one worthy of re-reading with a focus less on what happens and more on how Lovecraft describes it.
Where ‘The Colour Of Out Space’ is admired if not necessarily loved, ‘The Horror At Red Hook’ is almost universally derided and disliked as being a weak jumble of racist fears with few redeeming features. Dylan Henderson’s piece on this story is not so much an attempt at rehabilitating it as explaining perhaps what Lovecraft was going for. Henderson wisely does not trivialise the racist content of the story and correctly describes this as ‘anathema’ to the modern reader. But he does contextualise it. As is well-known, Lovecraft wrote this story shortly after his time living in New York. Never the most tolerant man when it came to America as the great melting pot of races, his experience of New York hardened that dislike into a virulent fear of miscegenation and what he thought the decay of the proper Anglo-Saxon culture of America. But ‘Red Hook’ is also a detective story of sorts anyway and Henderson explains this by drawing a line from Poe’s Dupin, through Sherlock Holmes, then Le Fanu and Stoker and, ultimately, Machen and Blackwood, two authors Lovecraft had tremendous respect for.
By making these connections, Henderson starts off with the basic literary detective, but then adds the supernatural elements that create what Henderson calls an ‘occult detective’. Consider Stoker’s Van Helsing, piecing together the existence of Count Dracula the vampire through letters and newspaper reports. What Lovecraft was doing, it is argued, was drawing on from this tradition, his Inspector Malone being in some ways a traditional detective but in this story having to deal with a very macabre set of circumstances. An important difference, Henderson opines, is that where someone like Van Helsing was able to deal with the supernatural in a rational way, Lovecraft cannot accept that sort of equanimity as realistic in the face of true cosmic horror. Instead, Inspector Malone gradually experiences a sort of mental collapse.
While it is doubtful anyone will enjoy ‘Red Hook’ any the more because of Henderson’s argument, he does convincingly make the case for the story being taken more seriously as a detective story parody of sorts.
One of the more obscure essays in the collection is the ninth one by Ken Faig, which proposes one John Osborne Austin as an important but overlooked influence on Lovecraft. Austin was a writer and genealogist and, while the latter aspect of his career has obvious parallels with Lovecraft’s interests, it’s his fictional output for which a tangible connection can be made and Lovecraft owning at least three of his books. Faig begins with a biography of Austin, which includes the important point that Austin, like Lovecraft, was a denizen of Providence, Rhode Island. Austin died in 1918, so there is the potential they met, but no evidence for this exists.
But, as noted, Lovecraft read his books, including the singular ‘Journal Of William Jefferay, Gentleman’. This book is a reconstructed diary of an actual New England settler running from the 1640s through to the 1670s. According to Faig, every person mentioned in the diary is attested to in the historical record. The various entries give a good impression of the Quaker life and habits of the time, but also include curious episodes such as one involving the report of a sea-serpent consuming mermaids, about which William Jefferay expresses some scepticism. These and various other stories about natural marvels and unusual events would, Faig suggests, provide an appealing historical framework upon which Lovecraft could build his stories. After all, many of them involve genealogical research, local history, folklore and, of course, the relationship between American settlers and the land around them.
The eleventh essay is Edward Guimont’s particularly comprehensive piece on Arctic, rather than Antarctic, inspirations and references in Lovecraft’s fiction. With Antarctic exploration such a key part of ‘At The Mountains Of Madness’ it is easy to overlook the Arctic elements of his other works. One such is ‘Polaris’, which describes the final fall of a far northern kingdom to the barbarian Inutos who are, presumably, the ancestors of the modern day Inuit tens of thousands of years ago. Guimont draws parallels here with the then-current idea that the Viking settlements in Greenland had been massacred by tribes of Inuit.
Another important Arctic story is embedded within the notoriously multi-layered ‘Call Of Cthulhu’. Here, an elderly professor recounts his meeting with a tribe of degenerate ‘Esquimaux’ who seem to worshipping a similar idol to the one Inspector Legrasse found in a swampy forest somewhere near New Orleans. Guimont describes certain other Arctic elements in some of Lovecraft’s other stories including collaborations with other authors and then into stories written by other writers, such as two stories written by August Derleth featuring a creature called Ithaqua. John Carpenter’s film ‘The Thing’ and even a ‘Star Trek: Enterprise’ episode are further expressions of Lovecraft’s promotion of the Arctic as a suitable location for horror stories.
The final essay is a long and well-detailed review of the undead in Lovecraft’s fiction. As a motif, the undead have their roots in the depths of history but Duncan Norris probably correctly identifies Stoker’s ‘Dracula’ as the clearest starting point so far as modern horror fiction goes. While Lovecraft rarely mentions vampires as such, other types of undead are important to several stories. What Norris skilfully does here is to reveal just how many of Lovecraft’s stories involve undead of various kinds and where the inspirations for these may have come from. Some are relatively well-known, such as the parallels between William Beckford’s 1786 novel, ‘Vathek’, set in mediaeval Arabia and Lovecraft’s unfinished novella, ‘The Dream-Quest Of Unknown Kadath’. Similarly, his 1922 story, ‘Herbert West – Reanimator’ was clearly inspired by Mary Shelley’s ‘Frankenstein’, though Norris details this as rather more complex than the one being a simple pastiche of the other.
Other stories that are less familiar, such as ‘Cool Air’ and ‘The Nameless City’, feature the undead in rather more original ways. These, in turn, inspired later writers and even filmmakers, the ‘haunted Indian burial ground’ motif being something Norris argues that Lovecraft originated but has now been overused to the point of cliché.
Overall, then, this fourth edition of the ‘Lovecraft Annual’ provides plenty of stimulating reading, from understanding the background of some of Lovecraft’s best known works through to explaining the topical and historical references contained therein. All the essays have been tightly edited and numerous black and white photos and illustrations furnish the book. For $15, it’s hard to say anything negative about the collection. There’s such a wide range of topics here that whether you’re coming to Lovecraft from an American literature perspective or as a fan of horror fiction or even more specifically with an interest in the Cthulhu Mythos, there’s something to engage you. Highly recommended.
(pub: Hippocampus Press, 2021. 252 page paperback. Price: $15.00 (US). ISBN: 978-1-61498-308-8)