The Curious Case of H. P. Lovecraft
Paul Roland | Plexus, 2014 | 240 pages | $19.95
Paul Roland is a singer, and author, and a believer in the paranormal. He has written more than forty books, many of which cover subjects related to the occult, the Nazis, and psychic phenomena. He is also the author of a new biography of H. P. Lovecraft entitled The Curious Case of H. P. Lovecraft. The publisher sent me a review copy of the book, which I read with bafflement. It is the most unnecessary and uninformative Lovecraft book I’ve ever read, and I read Donald Tyson’s Dream World of H. P. Lovecraft back in 2010.
Some biographies—and here I recall Plutarch’s Lives and Boswell’s Life of Samuel Johnson--rise to become literature themselves. But if an author wishes to write of the interior life of a wordsmith but brings to the task nothing of literature and nothing original, what purpose does the resulting pile of words serve? This volume is less a biography than a love letter, but one stretched beyond its borders and far beyond the author’s limited literary talent.
I’d like to start with the book’s formal problems since those are the easiest to acknowledge and dispense with. The book is haphazard and unscholarly, not just in content but also in form. The editing is slipshod, and capitalization inconsistent. Most facts and quotations lack citation or documentation, but at random intervals—when a particular quotation must be acknowledged to the secondary source whence it came—Roland includes a parenthetical reference. Turning to the bibliography, it is a shocking disappointment. It is composed almost entirely of standard sources, largely secondary literature on Lovecraft, including several volumes by S. T. Joshi. Lovecraft’s works themselves are cited only to the internet, and in an unscholarly free website. Worse, the bibliography betrays no context: There are no works cited on New York or Providence, on Poe or Robert E. Howard. There are no works of literary theory, or on the Roaring Twenties or the Depression—or even on pulp magazines or weird fiction. How can one write about the life of a man without researching his times? The secondhand research gives the entire book a secondhand feel, more book report than book.
The purpose of this book is similarly uncertain. For whom is it written? Who would want to read a summary of other people’s work with little original insight? There is no through-line, no narrative, and no argument. Aside from almost (but not quite) endorsing the theory that Lovecraft was a “latent homosexual” (“we’ll never know”), the author has one somewhat original observation: that Lovecraft suffered from Asperger’s syndrome. But lacking the courage to make this a guiding framework for a sustained argument (he falls back instead on L. Sprague de Camp’s Freudian theories), and, frankly, lacking any research into Asperger’s beyond a quick Google search, this is never more than an occasional, if repeated, aside. It’s a shame since structuring a biography and literary analysis around an argument would have made this book ten times more interesting than its rehash of secondary material. I wonder if the title of the book was meant to recall The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, the novel about an autistic youth. I hesitate to ascribe to the book that level of self-awareness since Roland previously wrote another book using the Curious Case of... title format.
The author further seems to assume that the reader has already read Joshi’s biography, or is at least familiar with Lovecraft’s life. Names—August Derleth, Frank Belknap Long, Samuel Loveman—go by largely unexplained; major events are alluded to only in passing. The Cthulhu Mythos is unartfully explained in a parenthetical aside, out of sequence, in a chapter on Lovecraft’s pre-“Call of Cthulhu” fiction.
The overall tone of the book is of summary and pastiche. The author makes no effort to hide the fact that virtually all of the facts related in the volume derive from S. T. Joshi’s biography of Lovecraft, which is cited, haphazardly, in its two-volume form, I Am Providence. The second most important source is Donald Tyson’s The Dream World of H. P. Lovecraft, itself founded on Joshi, from which our author has borrowed the unsupportable conceit—proposed first by Kenneth Grant—that Lovecraft had a secret subconscious connection to supernatural powers from the realms beyond our reality. Roland does not endorse this view wholesale (though he says Lovecraft entered a “trance” when writing), but he speaks of it approvingly, and it forms the foundation for his emphasis on the importance of dreams, the occult, archetypes, and the subconscious in understanding Lovecraft’s fiction.
The book never really decides whether it is intended as a biography or a story-by-story criticism of Lovecraft’s fiction; it is not critical enough to be a literary biography, and it is not interesting enough or informative enough to serve as a life story. It occupies an uncertain middle ground where the purpose and audience seem vague.
If the volume lacks a certain depth, it is because the author has focused so closely on the specific works of Lovecraft’s oeuvre that he has failed to provide any such thing as context. As a result, the reader would be forgiven for thinking that Lovecraft had invented the modern horror story ex nihilo, based on little more than Edgar Allan Poe and Lord Dunsany. Worse, the reader gets the distinct impression—born from the author’s unfortunate adjectives—that Stephen King is a greater horror writer than Lovecraft! But to understand Lovecraft’s literature, one must understand the literary tradition on which Lovecraft drew and, equally important, the current state of horror fiction in the years when Lovecraft began to publish. Almost no word escapes the author’s lips on the types of weird tales populating pulp fiction in the years when Lovecraft was starting his career (except to condemn them), nor does the author discuss the content of the magazines and newspapers Lovecraft read and, in amateur fashion, contributed essays and stories to.
The result is that Roland tries too hard to force Lovecraft’s stories into modern subgenres, seeing Lovecraft’s work as much less unified in theme and mood than it was. A fragment called “Memory” he ascribes to “alternative timeline” fiction, when it is quite clearly meant as an allegorical fantasy. To the minor tale “Old Bugs” the author ascribes a truly outsized importance. So wonderful was it that he believes that more stories in that vein would have made Lovecraft famous in the 1920s, on par with Ogden Nash: “He would have avoided the penury that plagued him in later life and might even have saved his marriage, if that had been his wish.” If such success eluded more mainstream aspirants to literary honor, like Paul Rhymer, who eventually found fame as a radio writer after seeing his efforts at literary short fiction published to no notice, it would have been unlikely to descend on Lovecraft outside the horror genre. Again, context matters in making such judgments. Roland’s critical judgment is of course questionable since he considers Lovecraft’s best work to be “The Dunwich Horror” (1928), “one of the most original and imaginative works in the entire horror canon.”
The author duly notes Lovecraft’s racism, but he sees it only in its most explicit forms; he fails, for example, to find anything untoward about “Arthur Jermyn” (1920), a story in which the Anglo-Saxon title character kills himself when he realizes he is tainted by African blood. But the author similarly has failed to do his background research—another result of the lack of context—and also makes some mistakes about the context Lovecraft drew upon. He claims, for example, that Lovecraft found a description of Iram, city of pillars, in the Qur’an. While the destruction of the city is referenced in the Qur’an, a description of the city can only be found in the source Lovecraft was more familiar with: The Arabian Nights. He also falsely calls the Kraken a “Greek myth,” which mistake must derive from Clash of the Titans. They are tiny errors, but they accumulate over the course of the book and contribute to the sense that it was assembled secondhand.
The latter sections of the book are little more than plot summaries of Lovecraft’s stories, and the only event of his later life described in any detail is his death, perversely given more space than any other biographical element. A final chapter on Lovecraft’s work is an incoherent agglutination of literary criticism on largely unrelated topics that reads like sections of earlier chapters that didn’t quite fit and were amputated and reassembled into a Frankenstein’s monster of a conclusion. The Asperger’s diagnosis makes an odd reappearance only to be dropped in favor of a explication of Lovecraft’s literary style and a further defense of the position, derived from Tyson and Grant, that Lovecraft had an accidental connection to the supernatural through dream visions of other dimensions: “Had he studied theosophy or any other spiritual discipline rather than dismissing them out of hand, he would have discovered that what he assumed to be a sense of insignificance was instead an awareness of being an infinitesimal but vital part of a greater reality.”
Remarkably, after running out of literary works and biography and then criticism, the book nonetheless continues on to a chapter on adaptations of Lovecraft’s work. This is a bit confusing because the book has now had two endings, and the next chapter picks up forty years after Lovecraft’s death without a moment’s thought about the literary effort that kept Lovecraft’s work alive for filmmakers to rediscover it. This chapter on adaptations has no narrative or through-line; instead it breaks down into spotty hit-and-run commentaries on film, comics, television, music, games, etc., with long lists of recommended reading and viewing.
Stranger still: This chapter, which feels like an appendix, is followed by an afterward, making the third or fourth consecutive ending for the book. Here, the author loops back to Lovecraft’s death to trace the publication history of his work and its critical reception, which logically ought to have come before the preceding chapter. It is placed here because it runs only a few paragraphs. The book concludes with a series of appendices, including Lovecraft’s “History of the Necronomicon,” his “Notes on Writing Weird Fiction,” and his wife Sonia Greene’s memoir of him. The last of these is reproduced from the abridged 1948 Providence Journal printing, rather than the unabridged version published by Necronomicon Press. Press materials describe the memoir as an “exclusive” to the book, but it’s not just in the Necronomicon Press edition (1985) but also August Derleth’s Something about Cats (1949, 1971). It’s more accurate to say it’s the exclusive version currently in print.
Everything you’ve read so far I wrote while reading the book over the past week. However, I need to inform readers of some unsolicited contact I had with the author this morning, after I had completed my review. My having contact with the author before my review runs is generally considered inappropriate for a book reviewer, as it runs the risk of compromising the reviewer’s objectivity. To be clear, though: At no time did anyone a Plexus nor the author attempt to influence my review, or indeed have any idea what I was writing.
Yesterday, the publicist for Plexus contacted me to follow up on whether I planned to review the book. He asked what I thought of it, and like most journalists I declined to provide a prepublication preview of the content of my review. I did, however, share my general concerns about the reason for publishing the book (I phrased in the form of asking what I was missing about the purpose of the book) and who the perceived audience for it might be since it appeared to be wholly unoriginal and quite derivative of Joshi’s and Tyson’s books. I meant that only as a comment on Plexus’s choice to publish the book, but the publicist felt they would better be answered by Roland, who responded through the publicist this morning. He more or less confirmed all of my criticisms:
The primary purpose of the book was to provide a comprehensive and concise biography and assessment of a writer many people are fascinated by but know little about. The Joshi book has been criticised for being convoluted and indulgent – the two volumes having added 150,000 EXTRA words of Joshi’s personal interests and observations on what many readers consider superfluous or extraneous information (Amazon reviews are particularly critical in this respect). My book is aimed primarily but not exclusively at the ‘general readers’ who may have a serious interest in horror fiction but who do not wish to commit themselves to ploughing through 2000 + pages of Joshi’s 2 volume door-stopper or investing £30 in them.
The publicist added that the book’s appendices contained a “wealth” of “rare” material, though as I noted above, all of it has been published repeatedly for decades and is readily available at many large libraries. You can take as you will the assertion that Roland’s book is either comprehensive or a biography in the traditional sense.
My bottom line remains unchanged: A new biography of Lovecraft for general readers would be a welcome addition, but this one lacks the original research, factual information, and overarching structure to make it understandable to those who have not read Joshi, or worthwhile to those who have.
I am an author and researcher focusing on pop culture, science, and history. Bylines: New Republic, Slate, etc. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
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