Pontifical Hokum

Sorry “The Blue Stone” didn’t land—but I don’t think much of Wright’s comments. They sound like the showy & would-be-impressive routine stuff which he reels off thoughtlessly by the yard in order to sound like a discriminating connoisseur. Sometimes, in dealing out this pontifical hokum, he gets forgetful & contradicts himself. What really prompts his rather capricious rejections is his belief that the tales in question don’t follow the conventional popular formula. In flaw-picking Wright sometimes becomes so pedantic & carping that his dicta lose all common sense. Thus in the matter of the phrase “cosmic ecstasy”. It ought to be plain to any person of reasonably developed imagination that cosmic ecstasy signifies a hypothetical state of intense emotional excitement or exaltation caused by the impingement on the senses & consciousness of utterly non-human & non-terrestrial impressions from ultimate outer space. That is, cosmic ecstasy is what would occur if any normal human being were faced with even a moment’s perception or suggestion of the seething forces or manifestations of the universe’s ultimate being. Naturally there isn’t any such thing in daily life—any more than there are space-ships or ghouls or vampires or time-machines in real life—but anybody must be a damned fool if he can’t see what the descriptive phrase is driving at. The trouble with Wright is that he didn’t stop to give the matter a moment’s real thought. He fancied that the phrase sounded like some of the meaningless grandiloquence of certain extravagant writers, & shot off his mouth before actually analysing it. That’s all too common among the cheap editors who constantly handle thin, unimaginative “action” stuff, & seldom encounter anything with larger implications & overtones.

DESCRIPTION: In a letter to his young friend and protégé Duane W. Rimel, Lovecraft criticizes Farnsworth Wright, the longtime editor of Weird Tales, and his editorial policy, which, he claims, discriminated against atmospheric and original weird fiction.

CITATION: Lovecraft, H. P. “To Duane W. Rimel.” 16 Mar. 1934. Letters to F. Lee Baldwin, Duane W. Rimel, and Nils Frome. Edited by David E. Schultz and S. T. Joshi, Hippocampus Press, 2016, pp. 148-55.


All Very Nice in a Lowly Way

I am glad you found my stories worth reading—especially “Polaris”, which was written in 1918 before I ever read a word of Dunsany’s. That tale is a favourite with Galpin & Long, though it is so connected with certain facts of science—astronomical, geological, & physiographical—that it lacks the advantages of simplicity and clearness. Weird Tales has printed another thing of mine—“The Hound”—& the editor has just written me a most flattering letter assuring me that I am a fixture with his magazine, & one of his two “star writers”—the other being Seabury Quinn, whose work you may have noticed. All very nice in a lowly way—if W.T. lasts.

DESCRIPTION: In a letter to Clark Ashton Smith, a writer and poet who would, in time, become one of his closest friends, Lovecraft claims that Edwin Baird, the editor of Weird Tales, considered him to be one of his two “star writers,” the other favored writer being Seabury Quinn.

CITATION: Lovecraft, H. P. “To Clark Ashton Smith.” 25 Jan. 1924. 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, pp. 65-8.

Making Concessions in Writing

As you may see, I disagree totally & violently with your belief in making concessions in writing. One concession leads to another—& he who takes the easiest way never comes back. They all say they mean to come back some day—but they never do. Belknap is gone. If Sultan Malik ever pulls out of charlatanry it will be purely the individual & non-representative triumph of a singularly keen objective intellect. Abe Merritt—who could have been a Machen or Blackwood or Dunsany or de la Mare or M. R. James (they never gave in & truckled to the Golden Calf! . . . . why should one if he can get food & decent clothing & warmth & shelter in any less ignominious way?) if he had but chosen—is so badly sunk that he’s lost the critical faculty to realise it. And so on—& so on. The road does not lie through any magazines . . . . that is, the road for a fantastic writer. The “slicks” are just as tawdry & insincere as the “pulps”—with merely a different kind of tawdriness & insincerity—& the reputable magazines (Harpers, Scribners, Story &c.) virtually never handle fantasy. The road to print for the serious fantaisiste is through book-publication alone—save for those incidental magazine placements which lie along the way. And if one can’t make the book grade in the end, he is better off with his work largely unpublished—able to look himself in the face & know that he has never cringed nor truckled nor sold his intellectual & aesthetic integrity. He may go down, but he’ll go down like a free & unbroken gentleman with sword untarnished & colours defiantly flying. Britons never shall be slaves! Actually, all technical training for the popular magazines is in precisely the wrong direction so far as aesthetic expression is concerned. The better magazine hack one is, the less chance one has of ever doing anything worth doing. Every magazine trick & mannerism must be rigidly unlearned & banished even from one’s subconsciousness before one can write seriously for educated mental adults. That’s why Merritt is lost—he learned the trained-dog tricks too well, & now he can’t think & feel fictionally except in terms of the meaningless & artificial clichés of 2¢-a-word romance. Machen & Dunsany & James would not learn the tricks—& they have a record of genuine creative achievement beside which a whole library-full of cheap “Ships of Ishtar” & “Creep, Shadows” remains essentially negligible. It is much better never to have anything published than to cringe to cheap tradesmen—yet in practice the determined anti-concessionist often lands a story. True, he doesn’t land as many as the truckler lands—but that was never his object. He wrote what he wrote because he wanted to write it—& the feat of mood-crystallisation itself was its own reward. If he had merely written what some grasping editorial clown wanted, where would his satisfaction have been? When it comes to a question of industrial production to suit a market demand, it’s rather more dignified to let the commodity be something staple & useful—wheat, oranges, coal, furniture, & so on—than to let one’s production-programme mock & parody the basic human impulse of aesthetic creation.

DESCRIPTION: In a letter to fellow writer C. L. Moore, Lovecraft argues that writers should, for the sake of their artistic and intellectual integrity, remain true to their own aesthetic vision instead of making concessions to the demands of editors and the public they represent.

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 Most Unusual & Brilliant Character

I’ve recently come into touch with Finlay, & find him a most unusual & brilliant character. He’s only 22, & a resident of his native city of Rochester, N.Y. He is a poet of no mean attainments as well as an artist—though of course pictorial art is his primary medium. In future years I feel certain that he will become an artist of distinction, so that the WT group will feel very proud of having known him in his youth. . . . All of Finlay’s WT work is good—especially the designs for your “Lost Paradise” & Bloch’s “Faceless God”. Bloch tells me that Wright considers the latter the finest illustration ever drawn for WT, & that the original hangs framed in the office.

DESCRIPTION: In a letter to fellow writer C. L. Moore, Lovecraft describes his impressions of Virgil Finlay, an artist who often illustrated stories for Weird Tales and other pulp magazines.

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.

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.

Informal Studies

My health prevented college attendance; but informal studies at home, and the influence of a notably scholarly physician-uncle, helped to banish some of the worst effects of the lack. In the years which should have been collegiate I veered from science to literature, specialising in the products of that eighteenth century of which I felt myself so oddly a part. Weird writing was then in abeyance, although I read everything spectral that I could find—including the frequent bizarre items in such cheap magazines as The All-Story and The Black Cat. My own products were largely verse and essays—uniformly worthless and now relegated to eternal concealment.

DESCRIPTION: In his essay “Some Notes on a Nonentity,” Lovecraft describes the extent of his informal education.

CITATION: Lovecraft, H. P. “Some Notes on a Nonentity.” Collected Essays. Edited by S. T. Joshi, vol. 5, Hippocampus Press, 2006, pp. 207-11.

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.

Repudiating the Pulps

… the popular magazine world is essentially an underworld or caricature-imitation-world so far as serious writing is concerned. Absolutely nothing about it is worthy of mature consideration or permanent preservation. That is why I am so absolutely unwilling to make any ‘concessions’ to its standards, & so much disposed to repudiate it entirely in an effort to achieve real aesthetic expression even on the humblest plane.

DESCRIPTION: In a letter to his friend J. Vernon Shea, Lovecraft criticizes the pulps, claiming that their reliance on formula stymies artistic expression.

CITATION: Lovecraft, H. P. “To J. Vernon Shea.” 28 Sept. 1931. Selected Letters. Edited by August Derleth and Donald Wandrei, vol. 3, Arkham House, 1971, pp. 416-7.

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.

Never Have a Wonder Taken for Granted

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. But the characters and events must be consistent and natural except where they touch the single marvel. In relation to the central wonder, the characters should shew the same overwhelming emotion which similar characters would shew toward such a wonder in real life. Never have a wonder taken for granted. Even when the characters are supposed to be accustomed to the wonder I try to weave an air of awe and impressiveness corresponding to what the reader should feel. A casual style ruins any serious fantasy.

DEFINITION: In his essay “Notes on Writing Weird Fiction,” Lovecraft describes how to convincingly incorporate supernatural phenomenon into a weird story.

CITATION: Lovecraft, H. P. “Notes on Writing Weird Fiction.” Collected Essays. Edited by S. T. Joshi, vol. 2, Hippocampus Press, 2004, pp. 175-8.