The Oldest and Strongest Emotion

The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown. These facts few psychologists will dispute, and their admitted truth must establish for all time the genuineness and dignity of the weirdly horrible tale as a literary form. Against it are discharged all the shafts of a materialistic sophistication which clings to frequently felt emotions and external events, and of a naively insipid idealism which deprecates the aesthetic motive and calls for a didactic literature to uplift the reader toward a suitable degree of smirking optimism. But in spite of all this opposition the weird tale has survived, developed, and attained remarkable heights of perfection; founded as it is on a profound and elementary principle whose appeal, if not always universal, must necessarily be poignant and permanent to minds of the requisite sensitiveness.

DESCRIPTION: In his essay “Supernatural Horror in Literature,” Lovecraft claims that the weird tale, despite the objections of its critics, is a legitimate form of artistic expression.

CITATION: Lovecraft, H. P. “Supernatural Horror in Literature.” Collected Essays. Edited by S. T. Joshi, vol. 2, Hippocampus Press, 2004, pp. 82-125.

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.

Escaping Life

There is no field other than the weird in which I have any aptitude or inclination for fictional composition. Life has never interested me so much as the escape from life.

DESCRIPTION: In a letter to his friend J. Vernon Shea, Lovecraft explains why he writes weird fiction as opposed to literary fiction.

CITATION: Lovecraft, H. P. “To J. Vernon Shea.” 7 Aug. 1931. Selected Letters. Edited by August Derleth and Donald Wandrei, vol. 3, Arkham House, 1971, pp. 394-6.

A Negligible and Temporary Race

Now all my tales are based on the fundamental premise that common human laws and interests and emotions have no validity or significance in the vast cosmos-at-large. To me there is nothing but puerility in a tale in which the human form—and the local human passions and conditions and standards—are depicted as native to other worlds or other universes. To achieve the essence of real externality, whether of time or space or dimension, one must forget that such things as organic life, good and evil, love and hate, and all such local attributes of a negligible and temporary race called mankind, have any existence at all.

DESCRIPTION: In a letter to editor Farnsworth Wright, Lovecraft describes the philosophy that inspires his fiction.

CITATION: Lovecraft, H. P. “To Farnsworth Wright.” 5 July 1927. Selected Letters. Edited by August Derleth and Donald Wandrei, vol. 2, Arkham House, 1968, pp. 149-51.

Reading James Joyce

There is no more true sense and artistick discrimination in a modern coxcomb’s praise of Jurgen or Ulysses … than there is in a small boy’s praise of the dirty words which a bigger boy has dared to chalk up on the back wall of the stable.

DESCRIPTION: In a letter to his friend Frank Belknap Long, Lovecraft ridicules the praise being given to James Joyce and other modernists, whom he considers vulgar.

CITATION: Lovecraft, H. P. “To Frank Belknap Long.” 8 Jan. 1924. Selected Letters. Edited by August Derleth and Donald Wandrei, vol. 1, Arkham House, 1965, pp. 281-5.

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.

A Letter to the Editor

In accordance with your suggestion I am re-submitting “The Call of Cthulhu”, though possibly you will still think it a trifle too bizarre for a clientele who demand their weirdness in name only, and who like to keep both feet pretty solidly on the ground of the known and the familiar. As I said some time ago, I doubt if my work—and especially my later products—would “go” very well with the sort of readers whose reactions are represented in the “Eyrie”. The general trend of the yarns which seem to suit the public is that of essential normality of outlook and simplicity of point of view—with thoroughly conventional human values and motives predominating, and with brisk action of the best-seller type as an indispensable attribute. The weird element in such material does not extend far into the fabric—it is the artificial weirdness of the fireside tale and the Victorian ghost story, and remains external camouflage even in the seemingly wildest of the “interplanetary” concoctions. You can see this sort of thing at its best in Seabury Quinn, and at its worst in the general run of contributors. It is exactly what the majority want—for if they were to see a really weird tale they wouldn’t know what it’s all about. This is quite obvious from the way they object to the reprints, which in many cases have brought them the genuine article.

DESCRIPTION: In a letter to editor Farnsworth Wright, Lovecraft differentiates between his tales of supernatural horror and the superficially weird tales popular with readers.

CITATION: Lovecraft, H. P. “To Farnsworth Wright.” 5 July 1927. Lord of a Visible World: An Autobiography in Letters. Edited by S. T. Joshi and David E. Schultz, Ohio University Press, 2000, pp. 208-10.

Adam’s Bestial Child

Behold great Whitman, whose licentious line
Delights the rake, and warms the souls of swine;
Whose fever’d fancy shuns the measur’d pace,
And copies Ovid’s filth without his grace.
In his rough brain a genius might have grown,
Had he not sought to play the brute alone;
But void of shame, he let his wit run wild,
And liv’d and wrote as Adam’s bestial child.
Averse to culture, strange to humankind,
He never knew the pleasures of the mind.
Scorning the pure, the delicate, the clean,
His joys were sordid, and his morals mean.
Thro’ his gross thoughts a native vigour ran,
From which he deem’d himself the perfect man:
But want of decency his rank decreas’d,
And sunk him to the level of the beast.
Would that his Muse had dy’d before her birth,
Nor spread such foul corruption o’er the earth.

DESCRIPTION: In his poem “Fragment on Whitman,” Lovecraft criticizes Walt Whitman’s  poetry for its licentiousness.

CITATION: Lovecraft, H. P. “Fragment on Whitman.” The Ancient Track: The Complete Poetical Works of H. P. Lovecraft. Edited by S. T. Joshi, Hippocampus Press, 2013, pp. 202-3.

Imitating Poe

Others—including editor Wright—agree with you in liking The Outsider, but I can’t say that I share this opinion. To my mind this tale … is too glibly mechanical in its climatic effect, & almost comic in the bombastic pomposity of its language. As I re-read it, I can hardly understand how I could have let myself by tangled up in such baroque & windy rhetoric as recently as ten years ago. It represents my literal though unconscious imitation of Poe as its very height.

DESCRIPTION: In a letter to his friend J. Vernon Shea, Lovecraft dismisses “The Outsider” as “almost comic in the bombastic pomposity of its language.”

CITATION: Lovecraft, H. P. “To J. Vernon Shea.” 19 June 1931. Selected Letters. Edited by August Derleth and Donald Wandrei, vol. 3, Arkham House, 1971, pp. 378-80.

The Hack

The modern bard restrains poetic rage,
To fit his couplets to a quarter-page.
Who now regards his skill, or taste, or strength,
When verse is writ and printed for its length?
His soaring sentiments he needs must pinch,
And sing his Amaryllis by the inch.
The art is easy when the artist tries
Not for Parnassus, but alone for size.
He wastes no care on polish, wit, or grace,
Who rhymes to fill an idle bit of space.
None heeds his worth; his listless lines are bought
Because some favour’d story is too short.
No critic’s sneer his honest ire incites,
For none, forsooth, peruses what he writes!

DESCRIPTION: In his poem “The Magazine Poet,” Lovecraft mocks the commercialism of modern magazines and the poets who write for them.

CITATION: Lovecraft, H. P. “The Magazine Poet.” The Ancient Track: The Complete Poetical Works of H. P. Lovecraft. Edited by S. T. Joshi, Hippocampus Press, 2013, pp. 225-6.