My God of Fiction

I used to write detective stories very often, the works of A. Conan Doyle being my model so far as plot was concerned. But Poe was my God of Fiction. I used to love the horrible and the grotesque—much more than I do now—and can recall tales of murderers, spirits, reincarnations, metempsychoses, and every shudder-producing device known to literature!

DESCRIPTION: In a letter to his friend Rheinhart Kleiner, Lovecraft describes his childhood infatuation with the works of Arthur Conan Doyle and Edgar Allan Poe.

CITATION: Lovecraft, H. P. “To Rheinhart Kleiner.” 2 Feb. 1916. Selected Letters. Edited by August Derleth and Donald Wandrei, vol. 1, Arkham House, 1965, pp. 20-1.


A Genuine Pagan

When about seven or eight I was a genuine pagan, so intoxictated with the beauty of Greece that I acquired a half-sincere belief in the old gods and Nature-spirits. I have in literal truth built altars to Pan, Apollo, Diana, and Athena, and have watched for dryads and satyrs in the woods and fields at dusk. Once I firmly thought I beheld some of these sylvan creatures dancing under autumnal oaks; a kind of “religious experience” as true in its way as the subjective ecstasies of any Christian.

DESCRIPTION: In his essay “A Confession of Unfaith,” Lovecraft claims that, when he was a child, he once saw dryads and satyrs in the woods near his home.

CITATION: Lovecraft, H. P. “A Confession of Unfaith.” Collected Essays. Edited by S. T. Joshi, vol. 5, Hippocampus Press, 2006, pp. 145-8.

The Nightmare of Nightmares

Nyarlathotep is a nightmare—an actual phantasm of my own, with the first paragraph written before I fully awaked. I have been feeling execrably of late—whole weeks have passed without relief from headache and dizziness, and for a long time three hours was my utmost limit for continuous work. (I seem better now.) Added to my steady ills was an unaccustomed ocular trouble which prevented me from reading fine print—a curious tugging of nerves and muscles which rather startled me during the weeks it persisted. Amidst this gloom came the nightmare of nightmares—the most realistic and horrible I have experienced since the age of ten—whose stark hideousness and ghastly oppressiveness I could but feebly mirror in my written phantasy. . . . The first phase was a general sense of undefined apprehension—vague terror which appeared universal. I seemed to be seated in my chair clad in my old grey dressing-gown, reading a letter from Samuel Loveman. The letter was unbelievably realistic—thin, 8½ X 13 paper, violet ink signature, and all—and its contents seemed portentous. The dream-Loveman wrote:

“Don’t fail to see Nyarlathotep if he comes to Providence. He is horrible—horrible beyond anything you can imagine—but wonderful. He haunts one for hours afterward. I am still shuddering at what he showed.”

I had never heard the name NYARLATHOTEP before, but seemed to understand the allusion. Nyarlathotep was a kind of itinerant showman or lecturer who held forth in publick halls and aroused widespread fear and discussion with his exhibitions. These exhibitions consisted of two parts—first, a horrible—possibly prophetic—cinema reel; and later some extraordinary experiments with scientific and electrical apparatus.

DESCRIPTION: In a letter to his friend Rheinhart Kleiner, Lovecraft describes the nightmare that inspired his story “Nyarlathotep.”

CITATION: Lovecraft, H. P. “To Rheinhart Kleiner.” 14 Dec. 1921. Selected Letters. Edited by August Derleth and Donald Wandrei, vol. 1, Arkham House, 1965, pp. 160-2.

A Little Lost World

Falling into a conversation with the chrysostomic gentleman of leisure above-mention’d, we learned much of local history; including the fact that the houses in Milligan Court were originally put up in the late 1700’s by the Methodist Church, for the poorer but respectable families of the parish. Continuing his expositions, our amiable Mentor led us to a seemingly undistinguished door within the court, and through the dim hallway beyond to a back door. Whither he was taking us, we knew not; but upon emerging from the back door we paus’d in delighted amazement. There, excluded from the world on every side by sheer walls and house facades, was a second hidden court or alley, with vegetation growing here and there, and on the south side a row of simple Colonial doorways and small-pan’d windows!! It was beyond words—it is still beyond words, and that is why I cannot do it justice here! Buried deep in the entrails of nondescript commercial blocks, this little lost world of a century and a quarter ago sleeps unheeding of the throng. Here stretch worn pavements which silver-buckled shoes have trod—here, hidden in cryptical recesses which no street, lane, or passageway connects with the Manhattan of today!

DESCRIPTION: In a letter to his aunt Lillian D. Clark, Lovecraft describes how he and his wife discovered a hidden court one evening while exploring the historic district of Greenwich Village.

CITATION: Lovecraft, H. P. “To Lillian D. Clark.” 20 Aug. 1924. H. P. Lovecraft: Letters from New York. Edited by S. T. Joshi and David E. Schultz, Night Shade Books, 2005, pp. 59-62.

The Greatest Peril to Civilised Progress

The greatest peril to civilised progress—aside from an annihilative war—is some kind of basically reactionary system with enough grudging concessions to the dispossessed to make it really work after a fashion, & thus with the capacity to postpone indefinitely the demand of the masses for the real rights—education, social, & economic—as human beings in a world where the great resources should be cornered by none. Laissez-faire Hoover-Mills-Mellon-Menckenism is simply a joke which can be counted out. Unsupervised capitalism is through. But various Nazi & fascist compromises can be cooked up to save the plutocrats most of their spoils while lulling the growing army of the unpropertied with either a petty programme of panem et circenses, or else a system of artificially created & distributed jobs at starvation wages on the C.C.C. or W.P.A. idea. A regime of that sort, spiced with the right brand of hysterical flag-waving, sloganeering, & verbal constitution-saving, might conceivably be as stable & popular as Hitlerism—& that is what the younger & more astute babbitts of the Republican party are quietly & insidiously working toward. Preferring the more civilised alternative of socialism, I can’t say that I wish them luck!

DESCRIPTION: In a letter to fellow writer C. L. Moore, Lovecraft theorizes that a fascistic party could, by combining patriotism with “grudging concessions to the dispossessed,” win the support of the American working class and delay the seemingly inevitable triumph of socialism.

CITATION: Lovecraft, H. P. “To C. L. Moore.” 20 Oct. 1936. Letters to C. L. Moore and Others. Edited by David E. Schultz and S. T. Joshi, Hippocampus Press, 2017, pp. 175-85.

Two Distinct Maladies

The serious, non-commercial aesthetics of today suffers, as I have suggested above, from two distinct maladies—the irrational & solipsistic freakishness of the subjective decadent, & the prosaic propagandism of the social theorist. The decadent concedes the existence of such a thing as disinterested art, but allows the futilities & absurdities & paradoxes & contradictions of the dying capitalist culture to disorganise him to such an extent that he can reflect nothing but chaos, paradox, hallucination, & ironic contrast. The theorist, on the other hand, refuses to admit that any such thing as art exists as an independent entity. To him (& he is usually an orthodox Marxist who reads an economic motive into everything from the motions of binary stars to the sighing of the wind in the trees), every human activity must have a direct bearing on the technical problem of organising human society for the optimum fulfillment of the majority’s physical needs; & art is justifiable only so far as it promotes the successful operation—or hastens the adoption—of a rational social order. Betwixt the two types, we get a sorry enough mess of nonsense & mediocrity. One gives us diagrams of scrambled conic sections or nightmares with locomotives floating in the sky over landscapes of skyscrapers twisted into spirals & dollar-signs, whilst the other gives us undistinctive photographic likenesses of Lenin & Stalin, educational posters urging children to brush their teeth, or grotesquely ironic murals shewing the triumph or the woes of the Mexican peon. To me, both of these attitudes seem essentially absurd. Each grows, I think, out of an excessively literal & exaggerated application of the idea that an artist should (or necessarily does) reflect something of his environment . . . . . although the Marxist position is part of a more elaborate maze of theory. This idea itself has always struck me as only loosely & partly true—& I certainly think that any attempt of the artist to keep it constantly in mind is ruinous to his work. We can produce real art only when we forget all about theory. It may be that our spontaneous results will indeed reflect something of our period & of our social sympathies in an unconscious way—but if we start out consciously with the idea of reflecting the period or airing our economic doctrines, we shall not get very far as artists. Of course, a person is now & then so naturally gifted with artistic genius that he cannot help producing real art as a by-product even when his conscious theories are of the most ridiculous & arid kind. Thus a surrealist crank or commercial hack or social propagandist may, by accident, evolve many a thing of undoubted power & authenticity. But even in such a case as this, the amount of waste is cruelly great. No matter how often the theory-handicapped or commerce-crippled artist manages to produce something good, we are always aware of how much better his results would be without the handicap. The real fact is that no artist ought to tie himself too completely or definitely to any particular period or aera. After all, the environment in which he develops is not merely that of one brief point in the time-stream. It is, rather, the sum of all that the ages have contributed to his civilisation. To the modern European, the sculpture of Phidias & Scopas & Praxiteles, the architecture of Ictinus, Callicrates, Metagenes, Dinocrates, Polyclitus, Hippodamus, & Apollodorus, the painting of Botticelli, Michelangelo, Leonardo, & Raphael, & the music of Handel, Bach, & Beethoven, are just as vital & immediate & personally present as are the latest creations of his own chronological period; & any attempt to erect a new art without reference to such foundations must necessarily be hollow, barren, & fallacious. Our particular age is indeed one of decay & chaos & transition, so that it can probably contribute less fresh material to art than can most others—but why should this force all artists either to devote themselves to the job of portraying decay & chaos, or to forswear self-expression & become social & political propagandists? Are the existence & presence of the past annulled by the momentary disturbances of a readjustment-period? Is a Gothic cathedral less beautiful because we have ceased to believe what the builders of Chartres & Lincoln & Salisbury believed about the governance of the cosmos? Are the landscapes of Ruysdael & Hobbema ugly or meaningless because they were painted amidst a bourgeois-capitalist civilisation whose social & economic values we no longer accept? Suppose we do have our grain harvested by machinery & ground in complex mechanical plants with tangles of tall smokestacks? Does that alter the fact that over a great part of our racial history we used scythes & wind & water mills, or annul the powerful appeal of pictures laying stress on these ineradicable cultural landmarks? Up to a relatively recent time, no one thought of questioning the equal artistic values of themes pertaining to our past (no matter how outmoded) & themes pertaining to our present (which will soon enough be merely another phase of the outmoded past!)—both forming equal influences in the shaping of the long cultural stream. Though we did not use Egyptian pyramids or Greek galleys or Roman chariots, or believe in centaurs & mermaids, we found all these things of vital significance in art—as bearing on the life & beliefs of those ancestral ages which moulded & gave rise to ours. Why, then, must we suddenly proceed to claim that a painting of a windmill is alien & meaningless because we no longer depend on windmills—or aver that we must depict a placid meadow or woodland as a jumble of cubes & cog-wheels because (a) we feel the chaos of a dying social order & (b) are more used in an urban-mechanical culture to seeing cubes & cog-wheels than to seeing trees & kine & hedges & distant spires? To my mind, the ultra-moderns have (as in the surrender of some of the less sensitive & courageous & determinedly individual spirits to the new tottering Golden Calf of Mammon) simply flown off the handle—letting their heads become turned by the admitted rapidity & completeness of certain current mutations which really do not differ in kind from dozens of mutations of the past.

DESCRIPTION: In a letter to fellow writer C. L. Moore, Lovecraft criticizes contemporary trends in art, specifically Modernism, which has, he claims, rejected the Western tradition in favor of Marxist ideology and nihilism.

CITATION: Lovecraft, H. P. “To C. L. Moore.” 7 Feb. 1937. Letters to C. L. Moore and Others. Edited by David E. Schultz and S. T. Joshi, Hippocampus Press, 2017, pp. 205-23.

The Ruthless Discouraging of True Merit

I recently took one phase of this subject—the influence of commercialism on art—up with young Finlay, the brilliant new WT artist, who thought Grandpa was too severe on the editorial rats who have gnawed most of the merit out of the coming crop of writers. Finlay thought that the obstacles put in the way of good writing form a stimulating “challenge” . . . . . God! As if the ruthless discouraging of true merit & systematic encouragement of cheap & tawdry charlatanism had anything beneficial in it! As I told Finlay, the “challenge” offered by commercialism is not the true challenge of harder conditions in the right line of development, but is simply a demand for aesthetically harmful departures from the right line of development. What is valued & insisted upon by commercial editors is precisely what has no place whatever in authentic literary expression. Whoever consents to aim for tawdry effects demanded by commerce, is deliberately checking & perhaps permanently injuring his ability in an effort to achieve certain cheap results alien & antagonistic to literature. The literary ruin of brilliant figures like Long, Quinn, Price, Merritt, & Wandrei speaks for itself. No really fine story would ever be accepted by a modern pulp editor if submitted without the name of a prominent author. I have no hesitancy in saying that “The Willows”, anonymously submitted, would draw a rejection slip from every penny-dreadful editor in England & America combined. When a half-decent story does get printed in a pulp magazine, it is generally because of some irrelevant element wholly unrelated to its real merit. The really best stories of the same author would be promptly rejected—as the experience of Klarkash-Ton eloquently proves. The one effect of commerce on the writer is to make him stop trying to write good stuff & begin trying to tailor trash to order in conformity with some cheap & anti-artistic formula. This is no proper challenge. The real challenges are those offered by the various problems of aesthetic expression—the problems of achieving this or that different effect in genuine artistry. Concrete embodiments of these real challenges are things like Nobel & Pulitzer Prizes, & the standards set by “quality” magazines & the more substantial & dignified publishing houses . . . standards based on intellectual reputation, not on sales. Those, of course, are a far cry from rampant commercialism. That, indeed, is an unmitigated evil which has ruined more potential authors than any other single influence. It is useless to point out that a few tremendously vigorous authors like Two-Gun Bob do somehow find a way to circumvent commercialism in part, & to get a few good stories published in spite of Mammon-standards. Even in this case a cruel waste of energy & ability—which might have gone into aesthetic creation—is involved, & the net output of the author is just so much less excellent than it would have been in the absence of commercial pressures. . . .

DESCRIPTION: In a letter to fellow writer C. L. Moore, Lovecraft criticizes the commercialism of the publishing industry, which encourages writers to conform to a “cheap & anti-artistic formula.”

CITATION: Lovecraft, H. P. “To C. L. Moore.” 20 Oct. 1936. Letters to C. L. Moore and Others. Edited by David E. Schultz and S. T. Joshi, Hippocampus Press, 2017, pp. 175-85.

My Greenwich Peregrinations

My Greenwich peregrinations included Abingdon Square, Grove St., Grove Court, Barrow & Commerce Sts., the Minettas, Milligan & Patchin Places, Gay St., Sheridan Square, & Charlton St., & embraced many marvellous glimpses of the old times. Once I saw a colonial doorway lighted up, the traceries of transom & side-lights standing out softly against the mellow yellow gleams inside. From Greenwich my route led south along Hudson St. to old New York, (across Lispenard’s Meadows & the filled-in swamp) & I noted the colonial square at the intersection of Canal. Later crossing to Greenwich St., I descended into the most ancient district; noting the Planters’ Hotel, Tom’s Chop House, & the like, & emerging on Broadway to salute St Paul’s & plunge down Ann St. into the heart of Golden Hill—Irving’s boyhood neighbourhood, & the seat of much disturbance during the late disastrous revolt against His Majesty’s government. I passed under the Brooklyn Bridge to Vandewater St., & noted with horror the replacement of a fine colonial row by a damnable new garage, (other excellent colonials have vanished in Greenwich, at Barrow & Hudson Sts.) & doubled back through New Chambers & Pearl, noting beside the former a colonial smithy which had always appealed to me. Proceeding along Pearl toward the Battery, I viewed all the ancient houses & waterfront panoramas as I passed them—remarking incidentally that the old Harpers publishing house has been newly razed. At Hanover-Square, seat of the best British gentry before the Revolution, I lifted my hat in honour of King George the Third; then passing on by the Queen’s Head Tavern—Fraunces’, that is—to those regions of Battery Park where one or two colonial mansions yet linger. It was now five o’ the morning, & I had so fully thrown off melancholy by my free & antique voyage, that I felt exactly in the humour for writing. The clouds were dissolving, & another day was done. Should I drag it away in New-York, & lose the keenness of my mood, or keep on in my dash for liberty—gaining fresh strength as I kicked aside the irritating fetters of the usual?

DESCRIPTION: In a letter to his aunt Lillian D. Clark, Lovecraft describes his late-night walk through Greenwich Village, a journey that inspired him to write the short story “He” the following day.

CITATION: Lovecraft, H. P. “To Lillian D. Clark.” 13 Aug. 1925. H. P. Lovecraft: Letters from New York. Edited by S. T. Joshi and David E. Schultz, Night Shade Books, 2005, pp. 169-72.

My Gaze Was Ever Upward

. . . In the summer of 1903 my mother presented me with a 2½ astronomical telescope, and thenceforward my gaze was ever upward at night. The late Prof. Upton of Brown, a friend of the family, gave me the freedom of the college observatory, (Ladd Observatory) & I came & went there at will on my bicycle. Ladd Observatory tops a considerable eminence about a mile from the house. I used to walk up Doyle Avenue hill with my wheel, but when returning would have a glorious coast down it. So constant were my observations, that my neck became affected by the strain of peering at a difficult angle. It gave me much pain, & resulted in a permanent curvature perceptible today to a close observer.

DESCRIPTION: In a letter to his friend Rheinhart Kleiner, Lovecraft describes his nearly lifelong fascination with astronomy, a love he traced back to a gift from his mother.

CITATION: Lovecraft, H. P. “To Rheinhart Kleiner.” 16 Nov. 1916. Selected Letters. Edited by August Derleth and Donald Wandrei, vol. 1, Arkham House, 1965, pp. 29-42.

Marblehead’s Hoary Magick

I came to Marblehead in the twilight, and gazed long upon its hoary magick. I threaded the tortuous, precipitous streets, some of which an horse can scarce climb, and in which two wagons cannot pass. I talked with old men and revell’d in old scenes, and climb’d pantingly over the crusted cliffs of snow to the windswept height where cold winds blew over desolate roofs and evil birds hovered over a bleak, deserted, frozen tarn. And atop all was the peak; Old Burying Hill, where the dark headstones clawed up thro’ the virgin snow like the decay’d fingernails of some gigantick corpse.

DESCRIPTION: In a letter to his friend Rheinhart Kleiner, Lovecraft describes his discovery of Marblehead, Massachusetts, an ancient seaport so well preserved that it seems to defy the passage of time.

CITATION: Lovecraft, H. P. “To Rheinhart Kleiner.” 11 Jan. 1923. Lord of a Visible World: An Autobiography in Letters. Edited by S. T. Joshi and David E. Schultz, Ohio University Press, 2000, pp. 112-4.