Review- de Camp, “Lovecraft”

L. Sprague de Camp, “H.P. Lovecraft: A Biography” (1975) – Horror writer icon H.P. Lovecraft was obscure in his life, but is well-known today, and arguably products of his fruitful imagination outpace his name in recognition- he could hardly have foreseen the image of his terrible elder god Cthulhu becoming chibi-fied into dolls, for instance, or for his references to become so common in gaming culture. Perhaps, as a lifelong pessimist, he could have seen coming the way his name has become synonymous with racism in speculative fiction and nerd culture more generally. Ironically, if he didn’t become so well-loved by a fervent cult in the mid-twentieth century, no one would have published his voluminous correspondence, which contains much stronger and more persistent racist content than do his stories (which could be pretty racist but not much more than was common in pulps at the time).

I’m reading Lovecraft for my upcoming birthday lecture, which juxtaposes the writer with crime writer Dennis Lehane and discusses both as promulgators of a genre vision of New England. Truth be told, chain-reading Lovecraft stories gets pretty old, pretty quickly- he’s best taken one at a time. I also “knew” about him and his various reputations, good, bad and indifferent, from my previous immersion in nerd culture, so who knows how I would have taken to him without that background. This birthday lecture is why I sought out this biography, which was also recommended by a correspondent of mine (alas, Lehane is still among the living and has not been biographized outside of brief journalistic profiles, to the best of my knowledge).

If the first iteration of the Lovecraft myth was of a lone genius scribbling away his tales of cosmic horror unacknowledged in Providence, L. Sprague de Camp, a man of the golden age of science fiction, seems to be the author of the second iteration of the myth- Lovecraft, tragic victim of what made him great. Apparently, August Derleth, first and most dedicated votary of the first iteration of the Lovecraft cult, dropped dead before he could write this biography, and the contract passed to de Camp. De Camp makes heavy use of Lovecraft’s thousands of surviving letters and is able to follow the author’s career month by month, giving his opinions of the various projects Lovecraft pursued and generally giving a thoroughgoing picture… if one with a distinct framing.

De Camp’s writing is sprightly, irreverent, lightly swaggering in that way of scifi writers of his time. He was a man of the world, author of nearly a hundred books, and a major critical figure in scifi/weird-fiction circles (he also wrote a biography of Lovecraft’s friend Robert E. Howard, of “Conan the Barbarian” fame). In short, he was as different from Lovecraft as it was possible for another white, basically conservative, male speculative fiction fan of his time to be. And seeing as that was largely the ambit in which de Camp (and Lovecraft) walked in and wrote for, de Camp makes much of the implied difference.

De Camp doesn’t downplay what many modern readers will want to know about, Lovecraft’s bigotry, except by way of comparison with the amount of attention de Camp dedicates to Lovecraft’s distinctly type-B personality and unprofessional working habits and demeanor. Lovecraft’s dread of rejection, refusal to “lower” himself to self-promotion, blown opportunities for advancement, inability to type even, come in for de Camp’s disapproving notice. Lovecraft’s bigotry gets tied up in this- de Camp depicts his “ethnocentrism” (a term he seems to prefer to “racism” for some tired midcentury reason) as one of his many impractical attachments to outmoded ways of thinking and doing things, that kept him in Providence, cozened by older female relations, unable to keep the good wife he won in the person of Sonia Greene, and generally failing to be the sort of ubermensch de Camp saw himself and his fellow scifi golden agers — an impressive bunch, if with impressive failings — to be.

One of the more relatable things about Lovecraft, to me, is his disdain for life, from his horror at biological fact to his preference for the dreamed over the real. His participation in “amateur journalism,” which de Camp lightly chides as a waste of time, reminds me of the people I know who’ve gotten really into blogs and/or forum cultures, complete with wrangling and factionalization. I think Lovecraft resounds as much with nerds to this day in part because he was one of them, and one who transcended without selling out… by the expedient of dying before he could and having his devotees popularize his work.

But make no mistake- he was racist as fuck. De Camp keeps promising what amounts to a “face turn” in later life. He did marry a Jew, after all, though he kept making anti-semitic remarks during and after his marriage. He got less bad about white ethnics in his later years, even making a mob of Italians (led by a priest, natch) save the day in one of his better late stories. One of the reasons de Camp prefers charges of “ethnocentrism” to “racism,” it seems, is that Lovecraft had a great pride in his notional “aryan” ancestors, which he dampened some later on. To broaden out into the ways his worldview affected his work, later stories like “At the Mountains of Madness” show a certain sympathy with the alien other that rivals his earlier outbursts of horror at difference for their emotional charge. But he was still writing shit about black people basically until the end, died believing Mussolini was pretty good (and FDR, too, for what it’s worth), and really didn’t change that much. You get the impression de Camp wished Lovecraft would stop being racist in the same way he wished he would buck up and learn to type- because it was embarrassing.

How much does Lovecraft’s bigotry matter? Well, I think for the fandom culture it matters somewhat what they name their prizes et al for, in terms of being welcoming to the people Lovecraft scorned. I don’t bother with the old get-out of “separating art from artist;” I believe can and should appreciate and enjoy the works of artists of all kinds with their eyes open. It’s just a fact that a lot of innovative artists were lousy people and/or had rotten politics. If you understand art as something other than a set of interchangeable entertainment products, which I do but which it appears a troubling number of popular critics do not, you can’t just swap them out for nicer people and have yourself a nice, clean culture. If nothing else, the repressed has a way of returning… as it happens, I’m not sure if Lovecraft was that much of a genius in and of himself. But in some respects the proof is in the pudding: we’re still talking about him, he helped define the genre of horror, and Cthulhu isn’t going to leave our collective imagination any time soon. We’re into at least a third iteration of the Lovecraft myth — Lovecraft as monster — and arguably a fourth — Lovecraft as figure less than the sum of his works — and who knows where it’s going to go from there. There’s limits to how much I care — I’m only a horror guy incidentally, for projects such as this year’s birthday lecture — but it’s an interesting process to watch. ****

Review- de Camp, “Lovecraft”

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