Authors And Their Characters

The other day, on Mike Davis’s Lovecraft e-zine blog, I read a post about a recently-discovered letter by H.P. Lovecraft, written in 1924 to J.C. Henneberger, the publisher of Weird Tales, the pulp magazine in which many of HPL’s stories were first published. A scan of the complete letter is available here. Each page may be displayed and enlarged for easier reading, and it’s definitely worth reading in its entirety. An interesting detail quite apart from the content is that the letter appears to have been typed on hotel stationery, with the hotel’s logo appearing upside-down on alternate pages.

The letter is revealing in many different ways. Lovecraft’s command of the language (and of typing!) is impressive, as is his committment to weird fiction. He recommends several authors of his acquaintance as sources for new work for the magazine, showing an admirable consideration for writer colleagues. He describes two novel-length works he was hoping to complete and publish, although it seems neither of them ever saw the light. (A comment to the original post about this letter suggests that one of these works may have morphed into the novella The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath).

HPL also speaks of stories he wrote at the bequest of the editor of a publication called Home Brew. One of these was a set of six serialized tales under the collective title “Herbert West, Reanimator.” Those familiar with this blog will recall my special interest in these stories and their principal character, Herbert West. HPL clearly describes his antipathy for the stories — not so much their content as their format. The serial aspect required each story after the first to recap the preceding one, a process HPL found tedious, and which, I suspect, coloured  his attitude toward the entire project. “I was sick of the job before I was half done,” he wrote. “The necessity for the completeness of each instalment spoiled the artistry of the whole thing — involving as it did the wearisome recapitulation of former matter in each instalment, and the eternal repetition of the description of Dr. Herbert West and his unamiable pursuits.”

As a writer, I can understand these sentiments, but as a reader, I did not find this to be a problem. In fact, those repeated descriptions of Herbert West — variations on “slight, blond, blue-eyed and bespectacled” — made him, in my mind, a more vividly realized character than the protagonists of many other Lovecraft stories, in which setting and atmosphere are primary. As the series progressed, HPL added additional elements to his descriptions of West, such as “a soul calloused and seared,” and “behind his pallid intellectuality, a fastidious Baudelaire of physical experiment — a languid Elagabalus of the tombs.” So vivid, in fact, were my impressions of Dr. West, that he took up residence in my imagination for several years, during which I wrote his entire life history, one never imagined by his originator.

All of this shows that written works have a life beyond that intended by their creators. Every time they are read — casually or critically, for purposes of entertainment, scholarship or research — written words may set up a resonance in the reader’s mind, may link up with other writings to generate something entirely new, that goes on to have its own influence.

 

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4 comments

  1. I think one of the enduring qualities of Lovecraft’s work is the way he weaves common elements into different stories to create that sense of a ‘new mythology.’ His parallel reality resonates long after the stories are finished as if there’s another world out there, functioning and operating alongside this one.

    He was lucky to be able to earn a living from his work, but it must have been immensely frustrating to have others dictating what he could or should include in his stories.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. He did scrape a living through his writing, largely because there was nothing else he wanted or was able to do. And this letter shows his awareness of how different from the mainstream his approach to fiction was. It makes me think I should track down published collections of his letters. He wrote so many, and reading them may give a truer impression of the man than biographies and critical works.

      Liked by 1 person

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