Lovecraft on Culture, the Classics, and A. Merritt

Monday , 4, January 2016 7 Comments

This newly discovered Lovecraft letter is quite the find. Even better, you don’t have to travel to some New England area university library to get a look at it. (I’ve noticed that people with a grossly batrachian aspect tend to trail me when I’m in that neck of the woods anyway.) That’s right, the whole thing has been scanned and posted online.

Dated February 2, 1924, it represents something of a turning point in Lovecraft’s career and for “Weird” fiction in general. That style of storytelling is noticeably different from more typical fare of its day. It’s too bad that lot of people want to stereotype the old pulp fiction as being more or less all the same because people like Lovecraft were making a conscious effort to push back against the tropes and trends of their own times:

When I see a magazine tending toward the commonplace, the last people I blame are the editors and publishers; for even a cursory survey of the professional writing field shows that the trouble is something infinitely deeper and wider—something concerning no one publication, but the whole atmosphere and temperament of the American fiction business. And even when I get to such large units as this, I can’t be any too savage about the blaming—because I realise that much of the trouble is absolutely inevitable—as incapable of human remedy as the fate of any protagonist in the Greek drama. Here in America we have a very conventional and half-educated public—a public trained under one phase or another of Puritan tradition, and almost dulled to aesthetic sensitiveness because of the monotonous and omnipresent overstressing of the ethical element. We have millions who lack the intellectual independence, courage, and flexibility to get an artistic thrill out of a bizarre situation, and who enter sympathetically into a story only when it ignores the colour and vividness of actual human emotions and conventionally presents a simple plot based on artificial, ethically sugar-coated values and leading to a flat denouement which shall vindicate every current platitude and leave no mystery unexplained by the shallow comprehension of the most mediocre reader. That is the kind of a public publishers confront, and only a fool or a rejection-venomed author could blame the publishers for a condition caused not by them but by the whole essence and historic tradition of our civilisation. If publishers of general magazines sought and used artistically original types of fiction, they would lose their readers almost to a man. Half of the people wouldn’t understand what the tales were about, and the other half would find the characters unsympathetic—because they would think and act like real people instead of like the dummies which the American middle classes have been taught and persuaded to consider and accept as people. (Front and back of page I.)

As much as Lovecraft wanted to innovate within his field, he nevertheless still maintained a passion for much older works.

The old-fashioned touch in my work is the result of my natural temperament and reading. I grew up with a large family library in a big house, and browsed at random because I was too ill to attend school or even follow a tutor’s course with any regularity. Somehow I acquired a fondness for the past as compared with the present—a fondness which had plenty of chance to reign because my semi-invalidism continued and kept me from college and business despite the most extravagant ambitions of boyhood. Nothing modern had any permanant [sic] power to fascinate me—and until my WEIRD TALES venture my only acquaintance with modern magazines was a spell of ALL-STORY and ARGOSY reading ten or fifteen years ago, undertaken for the purpose of capturing the occasional weird yarns in these periodicals– especially the former. The classics were my diet, and I have never found anything else half so good!

And finally, it’s clear from this letter that Lovecraft had a knack for spotting the sort of talents that could end up becoming movers and shakers in the fantasy and horror scene:

In thinking over my old ALL-STORY reading, and newer specimens brought to my attention, I recall several people who did very fair work—and one case of actual excellence. This last is a writer signing himself A. Merritt, who some five years ago had a novelette in the ALL-STORY called “The Moon Pool”. The power of dark and titanic suggestion in this unexplained mystery was enormous; and I was not surprised when the thing came out in book form, with two errors of astronomical nature removed. Later Merritt had two more things in the All-Story, both inferior, and showing the devitalising pressure of the cheap popular-magazine ideal. Given a free hand, I feel that this writer could snap back into his old mood and beat any other weird author in the current magazine field; and I wish there were a way of getting in touch with him.

That’s right. Lovecraft was an A. Merritt fan before it was cool. And reading this, I can’t help but think that Derleth’s direction with the “Mythos” stories is not at all what he would have wanted for his legacy.

7 Comments
  • Daniel says:

    True, but without Derleth, I very much doubt there would be a Lovecraft legacy at all. Yes, Bloch would have remembered him, but I say a shoddy conservation of Lovecraft is preferable to no conservation at all.

    Nevertheless, I suspect that had Lovecraft had a choice, he might very well have chosen postmortal obscurity over an embarrassing and misbegotten (if temporary) revival.

  • Jill says:

    I love these old documents that have been scanned and uploaded into databases, if they aren’t hidden behind a paywall or student acct. Good find. Made my day.

  • Lrp says:

    Rejection-venomed author. That phrase alone made my day 🙂

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