Wall Street Journal Article on H.P. Lovecraft
by JOHN J. MILLER
Tuesday, March 15, 2005 12:01 A.M. EST
For a man who didn't believe in the afterlife, H.P. Lovecraft sure is having a remarkable one. Few people had heard of him when he died at the age of 46 on this date in 1937, and fewer still had read the stories he sold to tacky pulp magazines. Nowadays, however, Stephen King and just about everybody else in the know recognizes him as the 20th century's most influential practitioner of the horror story--a claim he arguably clinched last month with the publication of his best works in a definitive edition.
If our country's literary canon has a dress code, then surely it involves those shiny black jackets covering the volumes produced by the Library of America. Lovecraft's new one runs for more than 800 pages and includes 22 novellas and short stories with titles such as "The Horror at Red Hook," "At the Mountains of Madness" and "The Thing on the Doorstep." There are now 25,000 copies in print, which is an above-average number for the nonprofit publisher. (A book of Louisa May Alcott's "Little Women" and other writings, released at the same time, has an initial printing of 19,000.)
As with so much genre fiction, Lovecraft's oeuvre isn't for everyone. Some people just can't see past the wooden characters, overwrought prose, and fantastic speculations about the nature of the universe. The dialogue occasionally descends into Howard Dean-like howls of "Eh-ya-ya-ya-yahaah!" Edmund Wilson once quipped that the only horror in Lovecraft's corpus was the author's "bad taste and bad art."
Yet it is difficult to deny his enormous importance in a field of literature whose roots stretch back to the Gothic novels of Anne Radcliffe, the prescient nightmares of Mary Shelley, and the macabre mind of Edgar Allan Poe. Even the most respectable authors have taken advantage of the conventions these writers created and refined. "The Turn of the Screw" by Henry James, after all, is a pretty good ghost story.