H. P. LOVECRAFT. The Classic Horror Stories. Edited by Roger Luckhurst. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013. xxxvi, 487 pp. Reviewed by S. T. Joshi.
The book under review was compiled by Roger Luckhurst, a professor of modern literature at Birkbeck College in the University of London. He has no obvious qualifications for assembling the book, since to my knowledge he has not written a single book, article, or review about Lovecraft. Instead, he has written a book on mummies and edited some Victorian works of the supernatural for Oxford University Press. But one must not condemn a book merely because its compiler may be a relative newcomer to the field; after all, we are all newcomers once.
There are at least three ways to assess this volume: 1) its selection of material; 2) its preparation of the texts; and 3) its notes and commentary. In all these ways, but especially in the second and third, this book fails lamentably.
As for the selection of stories: it is unexceptionable—except for the inclusion of “The Horror at Red Hook” (1925), a shoddy and contrived story that nearly every Lovecraft scholar regards as one of his worst tales. The choice of this story is particularly anomalous because Luckhurst avows that his selections “primarily focus on Lovecraft’s work after his return from his traumatic years in New York in 1926.” Why the exception for “Red Hook”? Evidently it embodies “Lovecraft’s engagement with the actual city of New York.” If this formulation makes any sense, it would surely have been better to have included the poignant story “He” (“My coming to New York was a mistake . . .”) or the compact and satisfying horror tale “Cool Air.” And if Luckhurst had already decided to violate his general rule of printing stories from the 1926–31 period (which he in any case has violated in the other direction by printing “The Dreams in the Witch House”  and “The Shadow out of Time” [1934–35]), he could have done so by printing “The Outsider” (1921), one of Lovecraft’s signature stories, or “The Rats in the Walls” (1923), a nearly perfect example of short story construction.
In regard to his preparation of the texts, Luckhurst has made the regrettable decision to return (more or less) to the original pulp magazine editions of the stories. At this late date, when my corrected editions of Lovecraft’s stories have been available for nearly three decades, the logic of this decision can seriously be questioned. What is to be gained by this procedure? Was Luckhurst or his publisher unwilling to pay the modest fee I might (or might not) have charged for the use of my texts? If push came to shove, I would have provided the texts gratis. Did they not know how to contact me? I hear from people around the world every day and usually reply in minutes. I could have provided Luckhurst with the corrected texts with one click of a mouse, as I have recently done to Leslie S. Klinger for his forthcoming Annotated H. P. Lovecraft (W. W. Norton).
Or, if Luckhurst didn’t wish to rely on my editions, he could have done the job himself. For every one of the stories in his book (with the exception of “The Colour out of Space”), a fairly clean typescript exists in the John Hay Library of Brown University. He need not even have made the tedious (but no doubt pleasant) trip to Providence to consult the texts; the library would probably have sent him copies at his request. In these particular instances (with the possible exclusion of At the Mountains of Madness), the preparation of the texts from the typescripts would not qualify as rocket science. He could probably have delegated the job to a graduate student or even an eager undergraduate.
How does Luckhurst defend this return to corrupt texts? Well, in reality he doesn’t. He states: “The texts have been checked against the first publication of the stories, nearly all in pulp magazines, with obvious mistakes silently corrected.” There is a considerable ambiguity in this utterance. Let us consider the text of “The Call of Cthulhu.” Luckhurst has in fact not followed the Weird Tales (February 1928) text in certain particulars, especially as regards Lovecraft’s Britsh spellings, which appear in his text but do not appear in the Weird Tales text. Surely he cannot claim that the (proper) restoration of the British spellings constitutes a “correction” of “obvious mistakes”; what is more, not all of Lovecraft’s British spellings have been restored, as Luckhurst has not printed “connexion” (found in Lovecraft’s typescript) where Weird Tales (and all previous texts prior to mine) print the American “connection.” Luckhurst does follow Weird Tales in (erroneously) printing “Eskimos” where Lovecraft wrote “Esquimaux.” He follows Weird Tales in some paragraphing errors as well. Then he prints “This data,” whereas Weird Tales and earlier Arkham House editions printed “These data.” The fact is that “This data” is a grammatical error found in Lovecraft’s typescript, and I printed it in my text. Weird Tales was actually correct in printing “These data.” But I need not go on. The end result is a textual mishmash more worthy of some fly-by-night print-on-demand publisher rather than of one of the world’s great academic presses.
The most unfortunate decision was to use the Astounding Stories appearances of At the Mountains of Madness and “The Shadow out of Time.” Even Luckhurst appears dimly aware that the former, in its butchered appearance in Astounding, is so corrupt as to be unusable; so he has essentially used the version that August Derleth prepared in 1939 (reprinted, with further errors, in 1964), based on Lovecraft’s corrected copies of Astounding, where at least the paragraphing has been repaired and the omissions of text (especially toward the end) mostly filled in. But the result is still a text that contains about 1500 divergences from the typescript. In the case of “The Shadow out of Time,” the decision is also regrettable. Consider this passage in Astounding:
I was born and raised in Haverhill [. . .] and did not go to Arkham till I entered Miskatonic University as instructor of political economy in 1895.
The actual text reads:
I was born and reared in Haverhill [. . .] and did not go to Arkham till I entered Miskatonic University at the age of eighteen. That was in 1889. After my graduation I studied economics at Harvard, and came back to Miskatonic as Instructor of Political Economy in 1895.
Luckhurst actually supplies the above passage in a footnote; but the degree of his ignorance of Lovecraft textual scholarship is betrayed by his comment: “Astounding simplified this sentence from HPL’s original . . .” What actually happened, in all probability, was that R. H. Barlow, in preparing the typescript of the story for Lovecraft, skipped a line or two of text (probably because his eye saw “Miskatonic” twice and largely skipped from the first usage to the second), causing the omission.
Luckhurst tries to justify his use of the Astounding texts by declaring that he wants to “retain some of the pulp energy that Astounding Stories wanted to inject into Lovecraft’s tales.” This is, I humbly submit, blithering idiocy. The only reason Astounding chopped up the long paragraphs in both stories is that, in the two-column format of the magazine, the paragraphs would seem even longer than on an ordinary printed page, and therefore would presumably be intimidating to the brainless sods who would be reading the stories. And if Luckhurst really wanted to give present-day readers a taste of “how they [the stories] were first encountered by their audience in the Golden Age of science fiction,” he should have printed the Astounding version of At the Mountains of Madness intact, without Derleth’s restoration of the paragraphing and of the passages omitted toward the end.
Let us consider Luckhurst’s annotations. For a text of 447 pages, he has about 40 pages of notes. For the same stories, I have 74 pages of annotations in my various Penguin editions. But quantity isn’t everything, I suppose. Perhaps Luckhurst has found some nuggets of information that I overlooked? It doesn’t appear so. In his notes to “The Horror at Red Hook,” he largely copies my own notes, but entirely fails to indicate that Lovecraft had provided his own (often erroneous) definitions of the words in the Hebrew/Greek incantation in the story; I quote them in full in my notes. Where he doesn’t copy my notes, Luckhurst gets things wrong. He claims that, in “The Call of Cthulhu,” Lovecraft’s use of the terms tornasuk and angekok may have been taken from E. B. Tylor’s article on “Demonology” in the Encyclopaedia Britannica; in fact, they were taken from Tylor’s article on “Eskimos.” In his notes to At the Mountains of Madness, Luckhurst states that Poe’s Arthur Gordon Pym was “serialized in 1837 and 1838.” In fact, only the first few chapters were serialised in the January and February 1837 issues of the Southern Literary Messenger; it was published in book form in 1838.
As for Luckhurst’s introduction, it is routine at best. It presents a fairly straightforward, if highly condensed, chroincle of Lovecraft’s life and work, although he fails to mention Lovecraft’s reading of Poe at the age of eight, the single most significant influence on his weird writing. Luckhurst also dwells far too long on Lovecraft’s racism, which is only a relatively small aspect of his philosophy and only enters into a few of his major tales. The introduction is also full of annoying little errors, such as the misspelling (twice) of Gustave (not “Gustav”) Doré’s name; the implication that Clark Ashton Smith and Robert E. Howard were part of the amateur journalism movement (Smith was only tangentially, Howard not at all); the idea that “Dagon” (1917) was influenced by Lord Dunsany, whom Lovecraft would not read until 1919; the omission of the macron for Dunsany’s first book, The Gods of Pegāna; the statement that Lovecraft published in Astounding Science Fiction (the magazine was called Astounding Stories at the time it published Lovecraft’s two stories in 1936); the notion that Lovecraft “mov[ed] back to amateur circulation” for his stories after 1931 (he published no fiction in the amateur press after 1925); that Lovecraft was 47 when he died (he was 46 and a half); the dating of Colin Wilson’s The Strength to Dream to 1962 (it came out in the UK in 1961); the misspelling of the name of Jason Colavito (as “Cavolito”), author of The Cult of Alien Gods; the mistitling of Lovecraft’s essay “Notes on Writing Weird Fiction” as “Notes on Weird Literature”; the mistitling of Jeff and Ann VanderMeer’s collection The Weird as Weird Compendium (and the misspelling of the editors’ names to boot); and so on and so forth.
Luckhurst’s “Select Bibliography” of primary and secondary sources is, to be frank, a disgrace. I suppose it was to be expected that he would not list either the two Annotated H. P. Lovecraft volumes (1997, 1999) or my three Penguin editions (1999, 2001, 2004), as they are all direct competitors to his own book (he does cite one of the Penguins in a footnote in his introduction). But the omission has apparently led at least one naïve and uninformed reviewer—one Jess Nevins, in the Los Angeles Times Book Review and Salon.com—to say of Luckhurst’s book: “One might argue that it is past time for a short form, one-volume critical edition” of Lovecraft. (Let it pass that this is not a “critical edition,” since it does not formally record textual variants.) For Lovecraft’s essays, Luckhurst lists Miscellaneous Writings (1995), which has been out of print for years and has been totally superseded by Collected Essays (2004–06), of which he appears to be unaware. He cites no edition of Lovecraft’s poetry—not Collected Poems (1963), not A Winter Wish (1977), not The Ancient Track (2001). For letters, he of course cites Selected Letters (1965–76), but cites none of the many other editions of letters that have appeared since the 1990s.
In his list of biographical and critical studies, Luckhurst stumbles immediately out of the gate by citing Lin Carter’s Look Behind the “Cthulhu Mythos” (1972). I suppose it was too much to expect him to know of my Rise and Fall of the Cthulhu Mythos (2008); given that ignorance, it would probably have been better to have passed over Carter’s flatulent popular tract in merciful silence. He does cite the three versions of my biography (1996, 2001, 2010) and—rather to my surprise—does not cite de Camp’s biography. He lists Shreffler’s H. P. Lovecraft Companion (1977) but does not list the Joshi-Schultz H. P. Lovecraft Encyclopedia (2001). And imagine citing John Taylor Gatto’s The Major Works of H. P. Lovecraft (Monarch Notes, 1977)! For those of you unfamiliar with the Monarch Notes series, it can be charitably described as Cliff Notes for the poor. Gatto, it will be recalled, was the one who put forth the novel theory that “The Whisperer in Darkness” was subtly pornographic, and who printed an erroneous death date for Lovecraft by taking it from a book review in Time magazine.
It is nice that Luckhurst cites Peter Cannon’s H. P. Lovecraft (Twayne, 1989)—but not so nice that he dates it to 1982. His omission of Cannon’s Lovecraft Remembered (1998), a definitive anthology of memoirs of Lovecraft, is cavernous. He cites my H. P. Lovecraft: The Decline of the West (1990), but not Timo Airaksinen’s The Philosophy of H. P. Lovecraft (1999). Also missing are such seminal works as Scott Connors’s exemplary critical anthology A Century Less a Dream (2002) and Robert H. Waugh’s two scintillating collections of essays (2006, 2011). No Lovecraft bibliography is listed—not Wetzel (1955), not Chalker (1962), not Owings-Chalker (1973), nor either of mine (1981, 2009). Luckhurst seems never to have heard of Lovecraft Studies or the Lovecraft Annual. In his notes he cites no articles on any of the stories he prints, even though there is a superabundance of very perspicacious criticism on all these tales.
And for someone who puts himself forth as an authority on weird and Gothic fiction, Luckhurst’s list of works on that subject is peculiar to the point of idiosyncrasy. He lists not one, not two, but three short articles by China Miéville, one of which is exactly one page long—but does not list David Punter’s The Literature of Terror (1980, 1996), the last incarnation of which is two volumes. And it was written by an Englishman, to boot! Important treatises on weird fiction or the Gothic by Les Daniels, Julia Briggs, Jack Sullivan, Terry Heller, and many others are missing. I will be charitable in assuming that my Unutterable Horror: A History of Supernatural Fiction (2012) came out too late for Luckhurst to cite; I am less charitable in pointing out the omission of my Weird Tale (1990), Modern Weird Tale (2001), and Evolution of the Weird Tale (2004).
In At the Mountains of Madness, Lovecraft states, in regard to the protagonists’ first view of the shoggoth: “It was the utter, objective embodiment of the fantastic novelist’s ‘thing that should not be.’” This volume is, prototypically, the Book That Should Not Be. It has no reason for existence, aside from putting a few pennies in the pockets of its editor and publisher. The decision to use pulp magazine texts—especially those from Astounding—borders on the moronic; the selection is flawed, the introduction is windy and contentless, the notes disappointingly skimpy when they are not ripped off from my own work. The paper and typography are nice, and the dust jacket presents a curious and rather spooky illustration of a sea creature (Ascidia) from an old book by Ernst Haeckel (whose Riddle of the Universe [English translation 1900] is, incidentally, misdated to 1903). But that’s about all the good that can be said about this rudis indigestaque moles.
I guess the lesson one has to draw from this book is: Don’t entrust an amateur to do a professional’s job.