Primal Sources: Essays On H.P. Lovecraft by ST Joshi (book review).

This collection of essays by ST Joshi is essential reading for anyone interested in HP Lovecraft or indeed weird fiction generally. Few critics have written as extensively on Lovecraft as Joshi and this collection reflects that range, jumping widely from topic to topic, though the essays themselves are arranged into three broadly thematic chapters: ‘Lovecraft The Man’, ‘Lovecraft The Writer And Thinker’ and ‘Studies On Individual Works’.


Joshi is well-respected as a scholar and the essays in the first chapter and many of the essays in the second chapter reveal the depth of his research into Lovecraft’s life and his social situation. Lovecraft had strongly-held political beliefs and these are often strongly reflected in his fictional works. But as the essay ‘Lovecraft’s Alien Civilisations: A Political Interpretation’ makes clear, his political beliefs were not as conservative as many casual readers suppose. Indeed, Joshi argues that his longer novels, like ‘The Shadow Out Of Time’ and ‘At The Mountains Of Madness’, can be read as political manifestoes of a sort, espousing stable, socialist utopias completely unlike the volatile, Depression-era capitalist United States where Lovecraft lived.

Similarly, the idea that many of Lovecraft’s stories are some way autobiographical is something that Joshi takes to task in the essay ‘Autobiography In Lovecraft’. Here it’s argued that it isn’t so much that Lovecraft wanted to use his stories to explore himself, but that the protagonists in his stories simply didn’t matter that much. So to keep things simple, he based his characters on the closest available model, himself.

Other essays in ‘Primal Sources’ look at the fiction directly, exploring aspects that happen to interest Joshi. The nature of the ‘Dreamlands’ for example is one that continues to challenge and perplex modern readers, despite the superficial rationalisation of the issue in the popular ‘Call Of Cthulhu’ role-playing game. Surprisingly, perhaps, Joshi argues that ‘The Dream-Quest Of Unknown Kadath’ complicates rather than explains Lovecraft’s dream world despite being filled with places and characters taken from other Lovecraft stories. The protagonist of the ‘Dream-Quest’, Randolph Carter, may well meet the priest Barzai (first encountered in ‘The Other Gods’) in the town of Ulthar (from ‘The Cats Of Ulthar’) but that doesn’t mean that either ‘The Other Gods’ or ‘The Cats Of Ulthar’ take place in Lovecraft’s dream world. Indeed, Joshi argues that these two stories, like some of the other ‘Dreamlands’ tales, actually take place in the real world, albeit at some unspecified point in the distant past.

‘Lovecraft And The Regnum Congo’ is another interesting essay, picking apart Lovecraft’s use of an obscure, though real, book in his celebrated short story of rural degeneration and cannibalism, ‘The Picture In The House’. What Joshi reveals is a Lovecraft who is not above using nuggets of information taken from second- or third-hand popular sources, rather than the careful scholar of mould old tomes we’d often like to believe that he was. As Joshi observes, this doesn’t make Lovecraft a fraud or dilettante as he was definitely a very well read man with vast originality and diverse interests but he was human after all and not above the occasional literary or scholarly shortcut.

Overall, ‘Primal Sources’ provides excellent reading for the Lovecraft fan. Joshi always writes well, so even where readers might disagree with his conclusions, they’ll enjoy his arguments nonetheless. Highly recommended.

Neale Monks

December 2012

(pub: Hippocampus Press. 208 page paperback. Price: $15 (US). ISBN: 978-0972164405)

check out website: www.hippocampuspress.com

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