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Anxiety of Influence: Lovecraft and Arkham House

H.P. Lovecraft is a writer with a history almost as sinister as any of his stories. By the time he was thirty, both his parents had died in a mental institution. He rarely went out in the daylight and reportedly suffered from extreme night terrors. His openly racist and anti-Semitic attitudes, evident in both his work and his prolific correspondence, are repellent. And yet, his influence on the entire canon of twentieth century horror and science fiction is almost impossible to overstate, with artists, directors and writers from Joyce Carol Oates to Ridley Scott to Terry Pratchett drawing on Lovecraftian themes and images. It is an uncomfortable heritage, prompting the increasingly familiar grapple with the question: can and should the artist be distinguished from the art?

Writer China Mieville, himself greatly influenced by Lovecraft’s work, has argued that it is naive to try to separate the two, given that Lovecraft’s horror is often driven by his paranoiac fear of the ‘other’: “the anti-humanism one finds so bracing in him is an anti humanism predicated on murderous race hatred.” In other words, Lovecraft drew on his own racist experience to invest his hellish creations – the Cthulhu, the Dunwich Horror, the Dagon – with the terrifying qualities which make for such effective horror writing. Acknowledging these facets of Lovecraft’s writing is thus both deeply uncomfortable and of paramount importance. Mieville advocates, rather than trying to ignore or pass over Lovecraft’s racism, that the reader should attempt to ‘metabolize’ it, using it to discern and combat harmful ideologies which still exist in the foundations of contemporary culture: “This work is spun from utterly toxic aspects of modernity and therefore it may illuminate them in certain powerful ways.”

Quite apart from the issue of Lovecraft’s racial bigotry, his pervasive influence on modern horror is doubly unlikely since he was virtually unknown in his lifetime, his work only finding publication in pulp magazines. He never earned a comfortable income from his writing and lived in virtual poverty for the last few years of his life. His transition from relative obscurity into genre-defining paragon was largely posthumous and set in motion by two friends, August Derleth and Donald Wandrei. Trying to find a publisher for a collection of Lovecraft’s stories, chosen from amongst his many magazine publications, Derleth and Wandrei realised that they would never be able to convince a publishing house to take a chance on such an unusual project so they decided to set up their own. Arkham House, named after the fictional New England city that was the setting for many of Lovecraft’s tales, published The Outsider and Others, the first collection of Lovecraft’s work, in 1939. Derleth, being himself a well-established writer, had both the means and the popularity to make a success of the project, and the book sold slowly but steadily. By 1944 Arkham House was a well-established small publisher of weird fiction with a growing audience, publishing books by both its founders as well as a raft of other writers who would become fixtures of the fantasy sci-fi and horror genres, including Sheridan Le Fanu, Ray Bradbury and Algernon Blackwood.

Books published by Arkham House are known among collectors for their excellent quality, both of printing and binding. Early Arkham House titles, Lovecraft’s in particular, are the most sought after. Our current selection of Lovecraft and Arkham House first editions includes the publisher’s fourth ever title, as well as Ray Bradbury’s first novel.

 

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