There are several biographies of H. P. Lovecraft, the most important of which is S. T. Joshi's H. P. Lovecraft: A Life and its much-expanded deluxe version. Another popular choice is L. Sprague De Camp's serviceable but somewhat Freudian H. P. Lovecraft: A Biography. But neither of these quite prepares the reader for Donald Tyson's new biography, The Dream World of H. P. Lovecraft: His Life, His Demons, His Universe (Llewellyn, 2010), a maddening mixture of insight and inexplicable hypothesizing.
Tyson, a believer in and scholar of "magick," has published many books that take seriously the idea that one can affect the material world through spells and rituals. Here, as in several of his previous books, Tyson claims that the gods and monsters of Lovecraft's Cthulhu Mythos can be used as legitimate and efficacious conduits for magical powers provided that the magician believe strongly enough in them.
In Dream World, Tyson retells the life of Lovecraft primarily by restating material drawn from the De Camp biography and analyzing it through the lens of visions and dreams. In part, this is quite interesting because Lovecraft's dreams, which formed the basis for many of his best-known works, are an aspect of his life worthy of keen analysis. The relationship, for example, between the books of Arabian and Greek legend and myth Lovecraft read as a child and the dreams they spawned is especially interesting when compared chronologically. However, for Tyson, Lovecraft was not simply possessed of a powerful imagination. Instead, he was a medium in denial, unable due to his materialist and atheist beliefs to accept that he was channeling a genuine mystical tradition of beings beyond the illusory material world.
In many cases, this assumption leads Tyson to strained or ridiculous claims. Most obviously, Tyson claims that the Necronomicon is the central aspect of Lovecraft's fictional worlds, the connecting thread for his many stories, and the "promise of answers to the most obscure occult mysteries." This is simply not true. Tyson needs it to be true because the Necronomicon is the fictional analogue of the magician's grimoire, but for Lovecraft the Necronomicon was little more than an occasional plot device, appearing in relatively few stories, and explicitly stated to be incomplete, allusive, and, sometimes, wrong. In At the Mountains of Madness, for example, the Necronomicon is said to be wrong about the non-existence of shoggoths. In "The Call of Cthulhu," the Old Ones are discussed only in "double meanings." Elsewhere, almost always the book is said only to "hint" at truths, which only the initiated may understand.
Lovecraft, of course, wasn't consistent in his description of the book--nor could he be. It was not the centerpiece of his fiction but an ornament, bending and changing with the needs of each narrative. The centerpiece of Lovecraftian horror is instead the terrible realization that every individual is alone in an uncaring, material cosmos, where even the gods and monsters are little more than aliens who care nothing for humanity. This is the real message of Lovecraft's fiction and one that Tyson cannot readily accept because, at heart, his "magick" is at fundamental odds with the materialism of Lovecraft's vision, and no amount of re-imagining can transform Lovecraft's attempt to seek a philosophical transcendence without God and without the supernatural into the essentially spiritual, anti-material world of magic.
Tyson's biography is occasionally fascinating, filled with interesting insights into Lovecraft's dreams and their impact on his fiction; but his belief in the power and prevalence of the supernatural undercuts what might have been a truly unique exploration of Lovecraft's dream world.
I am an author and researcher focusing on pop culture, science, and history. Bylines: New Republic, Esquire, Slate, etc. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
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