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Bennett Lovett-Graff

Why Lovecraft Works

Earlier, I noted how the American man of letters Edmund Wilson tried to put a nail in Lovecraft’s literary coffin with his excoriation of HPL’s tics as a writer and the seeming silliness of the latter’s creations. But Wilson never really got why Lovecraft worked then and works now.

In brief, HPL advanced the American gothic literary tradition…and broke with it. Now keep in mind that Lovecraft was a self-proclaimed amateur in every sense of the word: he regarded himself as an amateur journalist, amateur astronomer, and, yes, something of an amateur writer who placed his work in pulp venues like Weird Tales and Amazing Stories. For Lovecraft and his peers—Conan creator, Robert E. Howard, Clark Ashton Smith, and many lesser-known figures—there would be no climbing literary ladders of success into the pages of the New Yorker or Saturday Evening Post. He was one of several purveyors of shock and schlock—no more, no less.

But there was something different about Lovecraft—and, in my view, Howard, too. First, HPL was an aesthete, although one with some rather strange tastes. Second, he was deeply learnéd. Despite his failure to matriculate to university owing to poor health, he was a voracious reader with an enormous appetite for science, history, and philosophy and apparently the time to indulge it all because of his early cloistered life. Lovecraft is your classic example of the home-schooled autodidact: vastly read although not always with the rigor and breadth that the classroom setting provides through outside input and peer debate.

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Series: December Belongs To Cthulhu

Look at What Wilson Did!

What is it that makes Lovecraft so appealing? Surely not some touching belief in his qualities as a prose stylist. As heretical as this may sound, anyone with fairly good literary taste will recognize Lovecraft’s defects for what they are. In fact, it was these bad writing habits that precipitated the near fatal blow literary critic Edmund Wilson dealt Lovecraft’s reputation in a famous 1945 New Yorker article “Tales of the Marvellous and the Ridiculous.”

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Series: December Belongs To Cthulhu