A World of Opiate Phantasy and Horror

I trust you will pardon the liberty taken by an absolute stranger in writing you, for I cannot refrain from expressing the appreciation aroused in me by your drawings and poetry, as shown me by my friend, Mr. Samuel Loveman, whom I am now visiting in Cleveland. Your book, containing matter only chronologically classifiable as juvenilia, impresses me as a work of the most distinguished genius; and makes me anxious to see the new volume which I understand is in course of preparation.

Of the drawings and water-colours I lack a vocabulary adequate to express my enthusiastic admiration. What a world of opiate phantasy and horror is here unveiled, and what an unique power and perspective must lie behind it! I speak with especial sincerity and enthusiasm, because my own especial tastes centre almost wholly around the grotesque and the arabesque. I have tried to write short stories and sketches affording glimpses into the unknown abysses of terror which leer beyond the boundaries of the known, but have never succeeded in evoking even a fraction of the stark hideousness conveyed by any one of your ghoulishly potent designs.

DESCRIPTION: In a letter to Clark Ashton Smith, a writer and poet who would, in time, become one of his closest friends, Lovecraft expresses his admiration for Smith’s weird poetry, which he enthusiastically describes as a “work of the most distinguished genius.”

CITATION: Lovecraft, H. P. “To Clark Ashton Smith.” 12 Aug. 1922. Dawnward Spire, Lonely Hill: The Letters of H. P. Lovecraft and Clark Ashton Smith. Edited by David E. Schultz and S. T. Joshi, Hippocampus Press, 2017, p. 35.


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.

A New Acquaintance

—Extra! Special! The postman just arrived with the latest bunch of forwarded mail, and guess who that Auburn, Cal. letter was from? CLARK ASHTON SMITH, the author of “The Star-Treader”, “Odes and Sonnets”, “The Hasheesh-Eater”, etc., and the artist who drew the unutterably hideous pictures I sent you! I had written him at Loveman’s suggestion, but never thought he would answer. He’s a good fellow—he has seen one of my stories (“Beyond the Wall of Sleep”, which Loveman sent him), praises it effusively, and wants to see more. I shall accommodate him, you can bet! Did I tell you—or A. E. P. G.—that I have both of his already published works? Galpin (generous little divvle!) gave me “The Star-Treader”, whilst George Kirk (benevolent soul!) gave me “Odes and Sonnets” (deluxe edition, price $6.00) out of his regular stock. As you know, Kirk is a bookseller . . . Smith is a genius. As a poet he is on par with Loveman, and as an artist he is alone in his field. He is going to give me his new book when it is out. I have lent “Odes and Sonnets” to little Longlet, and the child is transported with Smith’s devastating horror.

DESCRIPTION: In a letter to his aunt Lillian D. Clark, Lovecraft describes his reaction upon receiving a letter from Clark Ashton Smith, a poet who would, in time, become one of his closest friends.

CITATION: Lovecraft, H. P. “To Lillian D. Clark.” 1 Sept. 1922. H. P. Lovecraft: Letters from New York. Edited by S. T. Joshi and David E. Schultz, Night Shade Books, 2005, pp. 18-9.

Robert E. Howard

Well—take Bob Howard. There’s a bird whose basic mentality seems to me to be just about the good respectable citizen’s bank cashier, medium shopkeeper, ordinary lawyer, stockbroker, high school teacher, prosperous farmer, pulp fictionist, skilled mechanic, successful salesman, responsible government clerk, routine army or navy officer up to a colonel, etc. average—bright and keen, accurate and retentive, but not profound or analytical—yet who is at the same time one of the most eminently interesting beings I know. Two-Gun is interesting because he has refused to let his thoughts and feelings be standardised. He remains himself. He couldn’t—today—solve a quadratic equation, and probably thinks that Santayana is a brand of coffee—but he has a set of emotions which he has moulded and directed in uniquely harmonious patterns, and from which proceed his marvelous outbursts of historic retrospection and geographical description (in letters), and his vivid, energised and spontaneous pictures of a prehistoric world of battle in fiction …. pictures which insist on remaining distinctive and self-expressive despite all outward concessions to the stultifying pulp ideal. It is, therefore, piquant and enjoyable to exchange ideas with Two-Gun or to read his stories. He is of about the same intelligence as Seabury Quinn—but Yuggoth, what a difference!

DESCRIPTION: In a letter to his friend Kenneth Sterling, Lovecraft describes his impression of Robert E. Howard and his writing.

CITATION: Lovecraft, H. P. “To Kenneth Sterling.” 14 Dec. 1935. Lord of a Visible World: An Autobiography in Letters. Edited by S. T. Joshi and David E. Schultz, Ohio University Press, 2000, p. 253.

True Style

I refuse to be taken in by the goddamn bunk of this aera just as totally as I refused to fall for the pompous, polite bull of Victorianism—and one of the chief fallacies of the present is that smoothness, even when involving no sacrifice of directness, is a defect. The best prose is vigorous, direct, unadorn’d, and closely related (as is the best verse) to the language of actual discourse; but it has its natural rhythms and smoothness just as good oral speech has. There has never been any prose as good as that of the early eighteenth century, and anyone who thinks he can improve upon Swift, Steele, and Addison is a blockhead.

DESCRIPTION: In a letter to his friend Maurice W. Moe, Lovecraft defends eighteenth-century prose against contemporary critics.

CITATION: Lovecraft, H. P. “To Maurice W. Moe.” 26 Mar. 1932. Selected Letters. Edited by August Derleth and James Turner, vol. 4, Arkham House, 1965, pp. 31-3.

Dime-Novel Theatricalism

A good interplanetary story must have realistic human characters; not the stock scientists, villainous assistants, invincible heroes, and lovely scientist’s-daughter heroines of the usual trash of this sort. Indeed, there is no reason why there should be any “villain”, “hero”, or “heroine” at all. These artificial character-types belong wholly to artificial plot-forms, and have no place in serious fiction of any kind. The function of the story is to express a certain human mood of wonder and liberation, and any tawdry dragging-in of dime-novel theatricalism is both out of place and injurious. No stock romance is wanted. We must select only such characters (not necessarily stalwart or dashing or youthful or beautiful or picturesque characters)  as would naturally be involved in the events to be depicted, and they must behave exactly as real persons would behave if confronted with the given marvels. The tone of the whole thing must be realism, not romance.

DESCRIPTION: In his essay “Some Notes on Interplanetary Fiction,” Lovecraft argues that science-fiction writers should, when developing characters, eschew romance in favor of realism.

CITATION: Lovecraft, H. P. “Some Notes on Interplanetary Fiction.” Collected Essays. Edited by S. T. Joshi, vol. 2, Hippocampus Press, 2004, pp. 178-82.

A Frank and Conscious Unintelligibility

The ultimate position of Dunsany in literature depends largely on the future course of literature itself. Our age is one of curious transition and divergence, with an increasing separation of art from the past and from all common life as well. Modern science has, in the end, proved an enemy to art and pleasure; for by revealing to us the whole sordid and prosaic basis of our thoughts, motives, and acts, it has stripped the world of glamour, wonder, and all those illusions of heroism, nobility, and sacrifice which used to sound so impressive when romantically treated. Indeed, it is not too much to say that psychological discovery, and chemical, physical, and physiological research have largely destroyed the element of emotion among informed and sophisticated people by resolving it into its component parts—intellectual idea and animal impulse. The so-called “soul” with all its hectic and mawkish attributes of sentimentality, veneration, earntestness, devotion, and the like, has perished on analysis. Nietzsche brought a transvaluation of values, but Remy de Gourmont has brought a wholesale destruction of all values. We know now what a futile, aimless, and disconnected welter of mirages and hypocrisies life is; and from the first shock of that knowledge has sprung the bizarre, tasteless, defiant, and chaotic literature of that terrible newer generation which so shocks our grandmothers—the aesthetic generation fo T. S. Eliot, D. H. Lawrence, James Joyce, Ben Hecht, Aldous Huxley, James Branch Cabell, and all the rest. These writers, knowing that life has no real pattern, either rave, or mock, or join in the cosmic chaos by exploiting a frank and conscious unintelligibility and confusion of values. To them it savours of the vulgar to adopt a pattern—for today only servants, churchgoers, and tired business men read things which mean anything or acknowledge any values.

DESCRIPTION: In his essay “Lord Dunsany and His Work,” Lovecraft speculates that scientific discovery and psychological research altered the way in which intellectuals viewed life and thus engendered Modernism, which rejects traditional art forms.

CITATION: Lovecraft, H. P. “Lord Dunsany and His Work.” Collected Essays. Edited by S. T. Joshi, vol. 2, Hippocampus Press, 2004, pp. 56-62.


Clark Ashton Smith

He is very kindly and likeable, and incredibly brave in his lifelong struggle against illness, poverty, and misunderstanding. He has at times helped out his revenues by fruit-picking, but is always forced to struggle hard. His home is a very small one, with no running water—just a primitive well outside. He writes in the open a great deal—at a table in his front yard—and takes many walking trips in the picturesque mountains of his region. The responsibility of his aged parents (who are inclined to domineer a bit) has kept him chained rather closely at home—if it were not for them, he would probably manage to see more of the world. Perhaps, though, his localism has been a blessing in disguise—his limited acquaintance with this world (San Francisco being the only metropolis he knows) giving his imagination all the keener force in depicting other worlds and other universes!

DESCRIPTION: In a letter to his friend F. Lee Baldwin, Lovecraft describes his friend and fellow writer Clark Ashton Smith.

CITATION: Lovecraft, H. P. “To F. Lee Baldwin.” 27 Mar. 1934. Lord of a Visible World: An Autobiography in Letters. Edited by S. T. Joshi and David E. Schultz, Ohio University Press, 2000, pp. 254-6.

The Death of Two-Gun Bob

It is hard to describe precisely what made his stories stand out so—but the real secret is that he was in every one of them, whether they were ostensibly commercial or not. He was greater than any profit-seeking policy he could adopt—for even when he outwardly made concessions to the mammon-guided editors he had an internal force and sincerity which broke through the surface and put the imprint of his personality on everything he wrote. Seldom or never did he set down a lifeless stock character or situation and leave it as such. Before he got through with it, it always took on some tinge of vitality and reality in spite of editorial orders—always drew something from his own first-hand experience and knowledge of life instead of from the barbarism of desiccated pulpish standbys. He was almost alone in his ability to create real emotions of fear and of dread suspense. Contrast his “Black Canaan” with the pallid synthetic pap comprising the rest of the current issue of W T. Bloch and Derleth are clever enough technically—but for stark, living fear …. The actual smell and feel and darkness and brooding terror and impending doom that inhere in that nighted, moss-hung jungle ….. what other writer is even in the running with R E H? No author can excel unless he takes his work very seriously and puts himself whole-heartedly into it—and Two-Gun did just that, even when he claimed and consciously believed that he didn’t. And this is the giant whom Fate had to snatch away whilst hundreds of insincere hacks continue to concoct phony ghosts and vampires and space-ships and occult detectives!

DESCRIPTION: In a letter to his friend and fellow writer E. Hoffmann Price, Lovecraft describes the authenticity and sincerity inherent in Robert E. Howard’s fiction.

CITATION: Lovecraft, H. P. “To E. Hoffmann Price.” 20 June 1936. Lord of a Visible World: An Autobiography in Letters. Edited by S. T. Joshi and David E. Schultz, Ohio University Press, 2000, pp. 337-9.

To Delight the Fancy

Modern bards, in their endeavour to display with seriousness and minute verisimilitude the inward operations of the human mind and emotions, have come to look down upon the simple description of ideal beauty, or the straightforward presentation of pleasing images for no other purpose than to delight the fancy. Such themes they deem trivial and artificial, and altogether unworthy of an art whose design they take to be the analysis and reproduction of Nature in all her moods and aspects.

But in this belief, the writer cannot but hold that our contemporaries are misjudging the true province and functions of poesy. It was no starched classicist, but the exceedingly unconventional Edgar Allan Poe, who roundly denounced the melancholy metaphysicians and maintained that true poetry has for its first object “pleasure, not truth”, and “indefinite pleasure instead of definite pleasure”. Mr. Poe, in another essay, defined poetry as “the rhythmical creation of beauty”, intimating that its concern for the dull or ugly aspects of life is slight indeed. That the American bard and critic was fundamentally just in his deductions, seems well proved by a comparative survey of those poems of all ages which have lived, and those which have fallen into deserved obscurity.

DESCRIPTION: In his essay “The Despised Pastoral,” Lovecraft claims that the true function of poetry is to “delight the fancy,” a truth, he claims, that most contemporary poets have overlooked.

CITATION: Lovecraft, H. P. “The Despised Pastoral.” Collected Essays. Edited by S. T. Joshi, vol. 2, Hippocampus Press, 2004, pp. 22-3.