Reply to Charles Baxter’s “The Hideous Unknown of H. P. Lovecraft”

To the Editor:

I was taken aback at the vehemence of Charles Baxter’s screed on the American supernaturalist H. P. Lovecraft (“The Hideous Unknown of H. P. Lovecraft,” Dec. 4), nominally a review of Leslie S. Klinger’s The New Annotated H. P. Lovecraft. It seems as if Mr. Baxter has some kind of personal animus against Lovecraft. Whatever the case, I think some words on the other side might be useful.

I was initially puzzled as to why Mr. Baxter was assigned to write the review in the first place. So far as I know (and I have prepared two versions of a comprehensive bibliography of Lovecraft that lists every article written about him from the 1910s to the present day),[1] Mr. Baxter has done no original research on Lovecraft or published anything about him. There is little evidence that Baxter has read the leading scholarship on Lovecraft (he claims to have read my biography,[2] but does not appear to have done so comprehensively or sympathetically) or is aware that the scholarly work of the past half-century has revolutionized our understanding of this author—work by such critics as Dirk W. Mosig, Donald R. Burleson, David E. Schultz, Steven J. Mariconda, Robert M. Price, Robert H. Waugh, and countless others. This work has definitively removed Lovecraft from the realm of pulp fiction and enshrined him as a canonical figure in American literature—a status endorsed by the Library of America, which published a volume of his Tales in 2005.

There is also little indication of Mr. Baxter’s familiarity with the tradition of “weird fiction” (Lovecraft’s felicitous term) in which Lovecraft was working—a tradition that stretches back to the Gothic novelists and Poe and progresses through Ambrose Bierce, Arthur Machen, Lord Dunsany, Algernon Blackwood, M. R. James, Walter de la Mare, L. P. Hartley, Ray Bradbury, Richard Matheson, Shirley Jackson, William Peter Blatty, Stephen King, Ramsey Campbell, Peter Straub, Clive Barker, Anne Rice, Thomas Ligotti, Caitlín R. Kiernan, Laird Barron, and many others. Lovecraft is at the focal point of this genre, drawing upon the best that preceded him and fueling much of the work that followed in his wake.

Charles Baxter appears determined to pigeonhole Lovecraft as a writer of interest only to “adolescents.” While it is true that a substantial number of Lovecraft devotees initially read him as adolescents, a fair number of these fans grow up to be reasonably mature writers in their own right who continue to draw upon Lovecraft’s writings for aesthetic inspiration. I would hope that Mr. Baxter would admit that such writers as Jorge Luis Borges (whose story “There Are More Things” [1975] is dedicated “to the memory of H. P. Lovecraft”), Joyce Carol Oates (who has written several Lovecraft pastiches), and Peter Straub (whose novel Mr. X [1999] is a riff on “The Dunwich Horror”) are sufficiently mature for his tastes. In my recent anthology, A Mountain Walked: Great Tales of the Cthulhu Mythos,[3] I have included work by such undeniably mature writers as Neil Gaiman, Caitlín R. Kiernan, Patrick McGrath, and T. Coraghesson Boyle. Dozens of other fans, critics, scholars, writers, and filmmakers who are well beyond their babbling infancy also admit to an admiration of Lovecraft.

Baxter goes on to assume—based on a stray comment made early in his career (“Adulthood is hell”)—that Lovecraft himself remained an arrested adolescent. In fact, he was largely successful in overcoming the severe psychological damage resulting from his early upbringing (he was raised by two parents who were borderline psychotics) and became a surprisingly well-adjusted and outgoing individual, and one who exhibited a keen interest in the world around him. In the four million words of his surviving correspondence, Lovecraft spoke perspicaciously on the political, intellectual, and cultural events of his time—from T. S. Eliot to Einstein to Max Plank to the depression to Brancusi to technocracy. I imagine readers of this paper in particular would conclude that Lovecraft’s radical transformation from political conservatism to moderate socialism is a sign of advancing maturity (conservatives may think otherwise).

In his superficial and misleading portrayal of Lovecraft, Baxter has carefully chosen quotations from Lovecraft’s letters and other work that appear to verify his presuppositions rather than allowing the totality of the evidence to guide his analysis. He notes, for example, that Lovecraft was a “stranger to joy” and that he had “the timid shut-in’s phobia of difference, variety, and diversity.” In fact, Lovecraft found a great many things to enjoy in life (aesthetic expression, astronomy, chemistry, anthropology, travel, cats, colonial architecture); his wide correspondence put him in touch with an extraordinarily diverse band of friends and colleagues, ranging from the rugged frontiersman Robert E. Howard (creator of Conan the barbarian) to the highbrow poet Hart Crane; and his travels during the last decade of his life took him far from his native Providence, R.I.—to such places as Quebec, Richmond, Charleston, Key West, New Orleans, and Natchez. A surprisingly active “shut-in”!

Baxter’s prejudice is no more evident than in his treatment of Lovecraft’s undeniable racism. His simple-minded caricature of this phase of Lovecraft’s thought (which he has clearly absorbed only at second hand) depicts him as a “pathological racist.” If Baxter had read some actual treatises of the period—such things as William Benjamin Smith’s The Color Line: A Brief in Behalf of the Unborn (1905), Madison Grant’s The Passing of the Great Race (1916), or Lothrop Stoddard’s The Rising Tide of Color against White World-Supremacy (1920)—he would see that Lovecraft’s opinions on the subject are relatively mild in the context of his times.

Baxter allows himself to be snookered by citing a passage about a black man in a story, “Herbert West—Reanimator”: “He was a loathsome, gorilla-like thing, with abnormally long arms which I could not help calling fore legs, and a face that conjured up thoughts of unspeakable Congo secrets and tom-tom poundings under an eerie moon.” Sounds pretty bad, no? But there are two things one can say about this:

1) One can find passages of a similar sort in stories by other writers of the period. Consider this from Raymond Chandler: “The Negro was enormous in stature, gorillalike, and wore a baggy checked suit that made him even more enormous.”[4] (Chandler’s story also contains repeated references to a “little Jap.”)

2) The over-the-top language of the passage makes it evident that it was meant as a parody (to say nothing of the fact that it was spoken by a first-person narrator). The element of parody is underscored when we understand the progression of the story, which deals with a physician’s invention of a drug that will reanimate the dead. When Herbert West injects the dead boxer with his formula (a formula that he explicitly stated was created with white people in mind), nothing seems to happen, thereby apparently confirming the racist subtext of the story. But the boxer is in fact reanimated and goes on a murderous rampage (as a white patient had done in a previous episode), thereby validating the physiological and psychological similarity of blacks and whites.

Baxter is also apparently unaware of the extent to which Lovecraft moderated his racist outlook over the decades. By the 1930s he had come to adopt a belief in cultural integrity, whereby a given nation’s culture should be preserved for its own sake: “a real friend of civilisation wishes merely to make the Germans more German, the French more French, the Spaniards more Spanish, & so on.”[5] And while retaining his belief in the biological inferiority of blacks (a view endorsed by any number of American and European anthropologists of the time), he could make so relatively humane an utterance as this: “It is possible that the economic dictatorship of the future can work out a diplomatic plan of separate allocation whereby the blacks may follow a self-contained life of their own, avoiding the keenest hardships of inferiority through a reduced number of points of contact with the whites. … No one wishes them any intrinsic harm, & all would rejoice if a way were found to ameliorate such difficulties as they have without imperilling the structure of the dominant fabric.”[6]

There is also the question of exactly how much racism enters into Lovecraft’s fiction. Baxter maintains that it is central. Another reviewer of the Klinger book—John Gray, writing in the New Republic—offers a different opinion: “Fortunately, the core of his work has nothing to do with his social and racial resentments.”[7] I am inclined to agree with Gray. Such things as atheism,[1] devotion to science, and love of the past are all far more central to both his philosophy and to his fiction than racism. Among his sixty short stories, novelettes, and short novels, I have counted only five that have racism as their thematic foundation, and only one of these—“The Shadow over Innsmouth” (1931), where the unwholesome mating of fishlike creatures from the sea with humans is generally interpreted as a metaphor for Lovecraft’s disdain for “miscegenation” (intermarriage between members of different races)—is a major tale. And yet, this remains one of Lovecraft’s great narratives, an imperishable account of regional decay worthy of Faulkner.

Baxter now makes a new accusation against Lovecraft—that he was a misogynist. This would come as a considerable surprise to those many women—his mother, his two aunts, his wife, and such friends and correspondents as Helen V. Sully, Elizabeth Toldridge, and the science fiction writer C. L. Moore—whom Lovecraft treated with unfailing courtesy and with several of whom he established close bonds of affection. Baxter’s chief evidence for his charge is another story, “The Thing on the Doorstep” (1933), where it is said of Asenath Waite: “She wanted to be a man.” (Oddly enough, Baxter does not quote an earlier passage that would seem even more damning to Lovecraft: “Her crowning rage, however, was that she was not a man; since she believed a male brain had certain unique and far-reaching cosmic powers. Given a man’s brain, she declared, she could not only equal but surpass her father in mastery of unknown forces.”)

But again, context is everything. First, this passage is placed in the mouth of a first-person narrator, Daniel Upton, and moreover he is merely reporting the opinion of Asenath Waite. Surely Mr. Baxter cannot wish to commit (again) the cardinal sin of criticism and assume that the views of a character are identical to the views of an author? Moreover, it has apparently passed his notice that Asenath herself is nothing more than the soul of her father, the wizard Ephraim Waite, who occupied his daughter’s body upon the death of his own. I suppose it is too much to expect Mr. Baxter to know that, a little more than a year after writing this story, Lovecraft made the following utterance: “I do not regard the rise of woman as a bad sign. Rather do I fancy that her traditional subordination was itself an artificial and undesirable condition based on Oriental influences. … The feminine mind does not cover the same territory as the masculine, but is probably little if any inferior in total quality.”[9] This would pass as fairly enlightened in his day—and, indeed, in our own.

The lengths to which Baxter will go in denigrating Lovecraft is indicated by his making unflattering (and unwarranted) assumptions about Lovecraft’s character based on his appearance. I am saddened to see a respected academic resorting to such desperate expedients. It will no doubt be amazing to Baxter that Lovecraft was an almost universally beloved figure in his time, as evidenced by the dozens of memoirs written by his friends, colleagues, and relatives. A comment by Ernest A. Edkins is representative: “I think that the most lasting impression Lovecraft left me was one of essential nobility, of dauntless integrity. … He remains enshrined in my memory as a great gentleman, in the truest sense of that much abused term.”[10]

Baxter has a low opinion of Lovecraft’s prose. It is easy to quote Edmund Wilson’s strictures from 1945, but there are several good reasons for not regarding Wilson as the voice of God on this issue. First, Wilson revealed a severe prejudice toward all genre writing, as witness his condemnations of detective fiction (“Why Do People Read Detective Stories?”) and of J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings (“Oo, Those Awful Orcs”). Wilson was simply unable to acknowledge that non-mimetic literature can convey anything significant about humanity and its place in the cosmos. (It will be news to Mr. Baxter that Wilson substantially revised—and revised upward—his view of Lovecraft about twenty years later, when he read the first volume of Lovecraft’s Selected Letters [1965]; he even wrote a play, The Little Blue Light, with some Lovecraftian touches.)[11]

Second, Wilson’s review appeared when he and many others assumed that the barebones austerity of Hemingway was the only “correct” style that could be utilized in literary fiction (Lovecraft himself derided Hemingway’s prose as “machine-gun fire”[12]), but I thought we had learned something since then. Steven J. Mariconda, who has done more to analyze Lovecraft’s prose style than any other scholar, has concluded that he was a “consummate prose stylist” and adds:

The bulk of his stories are atmospherically effective. … He wrote as he did for carefully considered reasons, leveraging a naturally erudite style into an effective instrument to create weird atmosphere. … He plumbed the depths of fear, dream, time, and space as few others have, and nothing other than the unique style we now know as “Lovecraftian” could have better conveyed the intense philosophical and psychological conceptions that were his concerns.[13]

If Mr. Baxter wishes the opinions of someone more eminent than Mariconda (and, indeed, than himself), I can cite Joyce Carol Oates, who has stated:

Most of Lovecraft’s tales … develop by way of incremental detail, beginning with quite plausible situations … One is drawn into Lovecraft by the very air of plausibility and characteristic understatement of the prose, the question being When will the weirdness strike? There is a melancholy, operatic grandeur in Lovecraft’s most passionate work, like ‘The Outsider’ and ‘At the Mountains of Madness’; a curious elegiac poetry of unspeakable loss, of adolescent despair and an existential loneliness so pervasive that it lingers in the eader’s memory, like a dream, long after the rudiments of Lovecraftian plot have faded.

These sentences come from Oates’s introduction to Tales of H. P. Lovecraft (Ecco Press, 1997), one of the best short analyses of Lovecraft ever written. It was originally written as a review-article of my H. P. Lovecraft: A Life in these pages (October 31, 1996).

Baxter also underestimates the tonal and stylistic variety of Lovecraft’s prose. He has made no attempt to seek out an entire group of imaginary-world fantasies (modeled largely after the work of Lord Dunsany), ranging from such exquisite early specimens as “The White Ship” (1919) and “Celephaïs” (1920) and culminating in the expansive short novel The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath (1926–27), that are very different from his dense tales of supernatural horror. These tales were deliberately excluded from Klinger’s volume. Baxter also ignores such things as the melding of weirdness and pathos in “The Outsider” (1921; also not included in Klinger), the self-parodic humor in “Herbert West—Reanimator” (1921–22) and “The Lurking Fear” (1922), and the transmogrification of the horrific “other” to the horrific self in such existential fictions as “The Shadow over Innsmouth” (1931) and “The Shadow out of Time” (1934–35).

Moreover, Baxter seems strangely tone-deaf to the radical change from Lovecraft’s early “first-person hysterical” style, as seen in such tales as “The Tomb” (1917) and “Dagon” (1917), to the far more sober, scientifically based fictions of his last decade. I for one would find it difficult to find a passage of more effective rhythmic modulation than in the first paragraph of “The Call of Cthulhu” (1926):

The most merciful thing in the world, I think, is the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents. We live on a placid island of ignorance in the midst of black seas of infinity, and it was not meant that we should voyage far. The sciences, each straining in its own direction, have hitherto harmed us little; but some day the piecing together of dissociated knowledge will open up such terrifying vistas of reality, and of our frightful position therein, that we shall either go mad from the revelation or flee from the deadly light into the peace and safety of a new dark age.[14]

The first sentence is now cited in Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations. I trust Mr. Baxter is prepared to admit that the editors of Bartlett’s know a good bon mot when they encounter one.

Even when Lovecraft seems to be at his flamboyant worst, he reveals a sensuous love of language that can be intoxicating, as in this celebrated example from “The Outsider”: “It was the ghoulish shade of decay, antiquity, and desolation; the putrid, dripping eidolon of unwholesome revelation; the awful baring of that which the merciful earth should always hide.”[15] At least one dictionary has quoted a part of this sentence as an example of the metaphorical use of the word “eidolon.”

Lovecraft made every word count. He adhered as rigidly to Poe’s theory of the “unity of effect” as Poe himself did. He recognized that a richly textured prose style was perhaps the best means to convey the realism that the supernatural tale required if it were to be convincing to a skeptical audience. He outlines his principles in the seminal essay “Notes on Writing Weird Fiction” (1933):

In writing a weird story I always try very carefully to achieve the right mood and atmosphere, and place the emphasis where it belongs. One cannot, except in immature pulp charlatan-fiction, present an account of impossible, improbable, or inconceivable phenomena as a commonplace narrative of objective acts and conventional emotions. Inconceivable events and conditions have a special handicap to overcome, and this can be accomplished only through the maintenance of a careful realism in every phase of the story except that touching on the one given marvel. This marvel must be treated very impressively and deliberately—with a careful emotional “build-up”—else it will seem flat and unconvincing. Being the principal thing in the story, its mere existence should overshadow the characters and events. … Atmosphere, not action, is the great desideratum of weird fiction. Indeed, all that a wonder story can ever be is a vivid picture of a certain type of human mood.[16]

The upshot of all this is that Lovecraft developed, in the course of a relatively short career spanning less than twenty years, a highly coherent aesthetic of the weird and developed a prose style that he believed was appropriate to its expression. Whatever one may think of Lovecraft’s prose, I would suggest to Mr. Baxter that he be a little less intolerant when assessing work that doesn’t accord with his own presuppositions.

I begin to wonder whether the hostility that Mr. Baxter shows toward Lovecraft—and, by extension, the entire realm of weird fiction—is based on a dim (and, to him, unwelcome) realization that, for at least the past century or so, many of the most dynamic aesthetic developments in Anglophone literature have come from what used to be derided as “genre fiction”—especially the vital interrelation between literature and media—and that the mainstream fiction in which Mr. Baxter himself has worked for his entire career now occupies a lesser place, with a dwindling readership and decreased relevance in today’s culture. Such writers as Raymond Chandler, Ray Bradbury, Richard Matheson, Stephen King, Philip K. Dick, James Ellroy, Neil Gaiman, George R. R. Martin, and the like are what even highly educated people want to read. Geoffrey O’Brien, editor of the Library of America, has recognized that fact in publishing editions of several of these authors. Lovecraft is again the lynchpin of this development, as testified by the H. P. Lovecraft Film Festival, which draws thousands of enthusiasts to Portland, Oregon, every year.

I hear on almost a daily basis from figures in film, television, video games, and comic books about adapting Lovecraft’s tales. I also hear regularly from editors and publishers from around the world who are interested in disseminating his entire work—stories, essays, poems, even letters—to a worldwide audience. Collected editions of his fiction have appeared in France, Italy, Germany, Greece, Japan, and elsewhere, and the imminent publication of a large omnibus of his work in Brazil this spring will be a major publishing event. Lovecraft has even inspired a new philosophical movement, weird realism, led by the philosopher Graham Harman.[17] It is difficult to find, in the entire range of world literature, a writer who so unites critical acclaim and immense popular interest as H. P. Lovecraft. Charles Baxter has tried his hardest to knock Lovecraft from his pedestal, but his effort comes up considerably short of the mark.

S. T. Joshi
Seattle, Washington

[1] H. P. Lovecraft and Lovecraft Criticism: An Annotated Bibliography (Kent, OH: Kent State University Press, 1981); H. P. Lovecraft: A Comprehensive Bibliography (Tampa, FL: University of Tampa Press, 2009).

[2] H. P. Lovecraft: A Life (West Warwick, RI: Necronomicon Press, 1996); expanded and updated as I Am Providence: The Life and Times of H. P. Lovecraft (New York: Hippocampus Press, 2010).

[3] Lakewood, CO: Centipede Press, 2014.

[4] “Pickup on Noon Street” (Detective Fiction Weekly, May 30, 1936); in Collected Stories (New York: Knopf/Everyman’s Library, 2002), 448.

[5] Letter to J. Vernon Shea, September 25, 1933; in Selected Letters 1932–1934, ed. August Derleth and James Turner (Sauk City, WI: Arkham House, 1976), 253.

[6] Letter to James F. Morton, 29 December 1930; in Letters to James F. Morton, ed. David E. Schultz and S. T. Joshi (New York: Hippocampus Press, 2011), 254.

[7] John Gray, "H. P. Lovecraft Invented a Horrific World to Escape a Nihilistic Universe," New Republic (October 14, 2014).

[8] For which see my philosophical study H. P. Lovecraft: The Decline of the West (Mercer Island, WA: Starmont House, 1990).

[9] Letter to Clark Ashton Smith, October 28, 1934; in Selected Letters 1934–1937, ed. August Derleth and James Turner (Sauk City, WI: Arkham House, 1976), 64. This passage was cited in both versions of my biography.

[10] Cited in Lovecraft Remembered, ed. Peter Cannon (Sauk City, WI: Arkham House, 1998), 96.

[11] L. Sprague de Camp, "H. P. Lovecraft and Edmund Wilson," Fantasy Mongers 1 (March 1979): 5.

[12] Letter to Maurice W. Moe, March 22, 1932; Selected Letters 1932–1934, 32.

[13] Steven J. Mariconda, "H. P. Lovecraft: Consummate Prose Stylist," in H. P. Lovecraft: Art, Artifact, and Reality (New York: Hippocampus Press, 2013), 45.

[14] The Call of Cthulhu and Other Weird Stories, ed. S. T. Joshi (New York: Penguin Classics, 1999), 139.

[15] The Call of Cthulhu and Other Weird Stories, 48.

[16] Collected Essays, Volume 2: Literary Criticism, ed. S. T. Joshi (New York: Hippocampus Press, 2004), 177.

[17] Graham Harman, Weird Realism: Lovecraft and Philosophy (Winchester, UK: Zero Books, 2012).