REVIEW: H.P Lovecraft – A Short Biography by S.T. Joshi

I did not know which direction I was going to go when I first started working my way through all of Lovecraft’s stories. I started out by thinking of them as sources of ideas for games but the more I read, the more interested I became in Lovecraft as a creator. To become interested in Lovecraft is to become interested in his sensibility and one cannot engage with Lovecraft’s sensibility without knowing a little bit about his personal history and the social context in which he was writing.

Having read some commentary on Lovecraft’s stories and a lot of the discourse surrounding his racism, I already knew a few bits and pieces about his personal history. However, if I was going to work my way through all of Lovecraft’s stories and engage with Lovecraft the man, then I needed to make sure that I had at least most of the facts straight in my head.

The problem with this approach to the study of Lovecraft is that is a lot of scholarship out there. Joshi estimates that Lovecraft may have written upwards of 80,000 letters in his life and while most of them are lost, a lot of them remain and they are full to bursting with personal details, evolving ideas, and background details on his life and the creation of stories. Little wonder then that there is a real cottage industry when it comes to writings about Lovecraft the man. In principle, all you need is some of his published correspondence and a few ideas and you too can come up with a fresh biographically-inspired interpretation of the man’s work!

The problem with taking this approach to Lovecraft’s work is that a lot of people got there before you and so many biographical details will have been mined for literary significance. For example, back when I was writing about “Polaris”, I came across a reference to someone suggesting that the story might have been inspired by lingering guilt over Lovecraft’s failure to fight in World War I. To my mind, this seems utterly ludicrous as Lovecraft had not only failed to bear the emotional burdens of high school; he also tended to be remarkably downbeat when it came to recognising of his own limits. A young man who struggled with high-school and beat himself up about it would not then think that he could have made a meaningful contribution on the Western Front. This being said, the person who made that claim about “Polaris” could probably point to Lovecraft’s repeated attempts to join the Rhode Island National Guard as well as a number of letters as proof that he had serious martial ambitions. Now… as someone who has always been more interested in critical interpretation than in biographical trainspotting, I would argue that regretting that one did not have the chance to become a celebrated soldier is not the same thing as seriously entertaining fighting in World War I but it would be interesting to know what Lovecraft actually said or did about serving in the military.

The problem with taking an interest in a historical figure whose life has already been subjected to serious scrutiny is where to start. At first, I thought that I might take a run at Joshi’s big biography but that thing is about as thick as a phonebook and full of footnotes. Similarly, if I wanted to wade into the correspondence then I would be confronted with a series of books, all quite thick and often collected according to the person with whom Lovecraft happened to be corresponding. All of these texts may be available, but I all I want is a means of putting meat on the bones of psychological speculation. I want to know more about Lovecraft but I’m not sure I’m ready to learn everything about him just yet. Thankfully, Joshi has written a book providing newbs like me with a short, engaging and accessible on-ramp to the world of Lovecraft scholarship.

Sarnath Press’s H.P. Lovecraft: A Short Biography is 108 pages long. The book is broken down into eight chapters including an introduction as well as some concluding remarks on Lovecraft’s posthumous reputation and levels of visibility. The remaining chapters break Lovecraft’s life down into six distinct stages:

  • Childhood and Lovecraft’s enrolment in high school
  • Adolescence and Lovecraft’s withdrawal from the world
  • Lovecraft finding himself first as an amateur journalist and then as an author
  • Lovecraft marrying Sonia Green and moving to New York
  • The collapse of Lovecraft’s marriage and his returning to Providence
  • Lovecraft’s troubled attempts to support himself as a professional writer

While the structure of this biography is quite straight-forward in terms of its chronology, the individual chapters try to strike a balance between biographical detail and literary commentary.

Given that this book is only just over 100 pages long, neither strand is particularly detailed. Joshi tells us when important stories were written, when those stories were published, and how well the stories sold but there’s also quite a bit of editorialising over which stories are better than others. Joshi seldom unpacks his critical judgements and the only stories he unabashedly praises are The Call of Cthulhu, At the Mountains of Madness, and “The Colour out of Space”. While I would agree that those are definitely some of Lovecraft’s best stories, it is slightly weird to litter a short biography with these kinds of simplistic aesthetic judgements. I mean… if you were going to write a 100 page introduction to the life of Shakespeare you probably wouldn’t waste space on why you prefer Hamlet to The Tempest, particularly when you could have used that space to either talk about the links between stories or flag-up any connections between the content of particular stories and the details of the author’s life. In fairness, Joshi does talk about how “The Horror at Red Hook” is pure swivel-eyed racist panic and how “The Shadow over Innsmouth” might have been inspired by Lovecraft’s low-budget exploration of the New England countryside but I could have done with a whole lot more of that type of stuff as that’s why I picked up a Lovecraft biography in the first place.

Joshi’s treatment of the biographical details is a good deal more satisfying in that he manages to strike a really fine balance between giving you the broad narrative strokes of Lovecraft’s life and delving into individual relationships for that one killer detail. For example, Joshi stresses Lovecraft’s devotion to his mother but also lets slip the fact that his mother would often describe him as physically repellent. Conversely, Lovecraft’s relationship with what is now thought of as the Lovecraft circle is skated over without much detail but what detail there is leaves the impression that they were a really positive force in Lovecraft’s life. Given that the man spent his teenaged years barely able to step outside, there’s something really heart-warming about the fact that he once travelled with the intention of helping his estranged wife set up a hat shop only to wind up blowing her off to spend the weekend hanging out with his squad.

Joshi’s depiction of Sonia Green is something of an iceberg as you can tell that he’s trying to be even-handed on an issue that has produced a lot of fannish speculation. For example, Joshi repeatedly returns to the question of whether or not Lovecraft and Green actually fucked and while I could understand both incels and asexuals wanting to claim Lovecraft as one of their own, I find it really weird that the issue was deemed important enough to address in a 100 page biography. Setting aside questions as to how much pipe Lovecraft may or may not have laid, I think Joshi does a really good job of finding a balance between facts and narrative as reading about all of these people made me want to know more about the details of their relationships with Lovecraft.

H.P. Lovecraft: A Short Biography is a very short and accessible book that I managed to get through in a single session. If you are a little bit curious about the details of Lovecraft’s life and the Wikipedia article just won’t cut it then this is a great place to start out. As someone who was already interested in the details of Lovecraft’s life, this book has given me a firm foundation for further study. I might not yet be quite ready for Joshi’s 1000-page epic but I certainly feel prepared to wade a little bit deeper into the waters of Lovecraftian scholarship and that is exactly why I bought this book.

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