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.

Six of My Tales Accepted & Awaiting Publication

Glad you liked the tales. Odd—but I had an idea you hadn’t seen “Polaris”. I know there must be somebody who hasn’t but wants to—but can’t think who it is, so will have to wait till he asks again. Under separate cover I’m sending a new one you haven’t seen—“The Horror at Red Hook”—which Wright has just accepted for Weird Tales. I don’t vastly care for it, & am a bit surprised at its hearty acceptance. Have I sent you “The Shunned House”? If not, I will. The tale of a sunken continent will probably be written during the coming week, & you shall certainly be the first to see it. Glad that Wright took some Baudelaire matter, but sorry he didn’t use “Yondo”. He is provokingly finicky about the element of plot, & seems to think he can’t take anything in which description or atmosphere predominates. He also rejected my “Polaris” (submitted in the same mail with “Yondo”) on the ground that it is a prose-poem. Personally I am very fond of poetic & atmospheric prose, & look forward eagerly to that future volume of yours. Weird Tales now has six of my tales accepted & awaiting publication: “The Tomb”, (to appear in Jany.) “The Cats of Ulthar”, (for Feby.) “The Moon-Bog”, “He”, “The Outsider”, & “The Horror at Red Hook”. Wright rejected “Beyond the Wall of Sleep” & is very dubious about “From Beyond”. “In the Vault” he rejected because he feared its gruesomeness would get him into trouble with the censors—O Gawd! O Montreal!

DESCRIPTION: In a letter to Clark Ashton Smith, a writer and poet who would, in time, become one of his closest friends, Lovecraft discusses his recent submissions to Weird Tales, six of which were accepted for publication.

CITATION: Lovecraft, H. P. “To Clark Ashton Smith.” 4 Nov. 1925. 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. 85-7.

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.

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.

Played Out

I may be as thoroughly played out as Blackwood now appears to be. I don’t know—and there’s nothing to do but experiment .… and keep as clear as possible of external criticisms and rebuffs. That’s why I don’t submit the Doorstep to Wright. For the present, then, I am a reader and appreciator rather than a writer. God knows I want a job—but I want it to be anything—elevator man, pickaxe artist, night-watchman, stevedore, what the hell—except writing. Anything except a parody on the only thing in life that means anything to me.

DESCRIPTION: In a letter to his fellow writer E. Hoffmann Price, Lovecraft expresses his dissatisfaction with his own writing.

CITATION: Lovecraft, H. P. “To E. Hoffmann Price.” 15 Aug. 1934. Selected Letters. Edited by August Derleth and James Turner, vol. 5, Arkham House, 1976, pp. 17-20.

A Writer No More

[At the Mountains of Madness] was written in 1931—and its hostile reception by Wright and others to whom it was shewn probably did more than anything else to end my effective fictional career. The feeling that I had failed to crystallise the mood I was trying to crystallise robbed me in some subtle fashion of the ability to approach this kind of problem in the same way—or with the same degree of confidence and fertility.

DESCRIPTION: In a letter to fellow writer E. Hoffmann Price, Lovecraft claims that Farnsworth Wright’s rejection of his novella At the Mountains of Madness deprived him of the confidence he needed in order to write.

CITATION: Lovecraft, H. P. “To E. Hoffmann Price.” 12 Feb. 1936. Selected Letters. Edited by August Derleth and James Turner, vol. 5, Arkham House, 1976, pp. 223-4.

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.

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.