Lovecraft and M.R. James

A new article in The Airship suggests the influence of M.R. James of Lovecraft. Although the only evidence given is from 1935 — when Lovecraft only had “The Haunter of the Dark” left to write.

S.T. Joshi puts Lovecraft’s reading of James at 1924…

he would discover … M. R. James in 1924″ (Primary Sources, p.10)

Possibly this was his reading for Supernatural Horror in Literature, in which James was given three pages on the ghost stories.

In 1927 Lovecraft wrote to Bernard Dwyer of the inevitable doom of the ghost story, of the type that relied on traditional time-worn approaches and which lacked any background philosophy or wider ramifications…

this art will, of course, in all its phases depend upon the past; and will [therefore] grow weaker and weaker as that past and its conditions recede into the background. It will last longest in such regions as cling most tenaciously to old things and old conditions”

But it seems Lovecraft enjoyed James’s ghost stories and they became a favourite of his. In a 1931 letter (Selected Letters III, p.379) he wrote…

I make no claim to membership in the first rank of weird writers — a rank represented by Poe among the dead, & by Arthur Machen, Algernon Blackwood, Walter de la Mare, Lord Dunsany, & Montague Rhodes James among the living.”

In a 1934 letter (Selected Letters VI, p.383) Lovecraft again stated that…

My favourite authors — aside from the Graeco-Roman classics & the English poets & essayists of the 18th century — are Poe, Dunsany, Machen, Blackwood, M. R. James, Walter de la Mare, & others of that type.”

“Notes on writing weird fiction” similarly names James as a great weird writer. Though in Lovecraft’s opinion these writers, apart from Dunsany at his best, usually lacked something…

What I miss in Machen, James, Dunsany, de la Mare, Shiel, & even Blackwood & Poe, is a sense of the cosmic. … Another lack which I constantly feel is that of realism or convincing seriousness. That is, the average weird author is essentially superficial & frivolous in his purpose. He wishes merely to entertain…” (Writers of the Dark, p.14)

The 1935 letter, quoted in The Airship article linked above, does have good deal of admiration for James. Lovecraft sees him as able to keep up with the likes of Dunsany and Blackwood, and understands his conventional approach as actually giving rise to an interesting interweaving of the horrific and the mundane…

M. R. James joins the brisk, the light, & the commonplace to the weird about as well as anyone could do it — but if another tried the same method, the chances would be ten to one against him. The most valuable element in him — as a model — is his way of weaving a horror into the every-day fabric of life & history — having it grow naturally out of the myriad conditions of an ordinary environment.”

Yet 1935 is too late to establish an actual influence of James on Lovecraft’s own stories. Lovecraft’s basic themes and approaches were pretty well set by 1924, when he first encountered James. There are only two scholarly claims for a James influence listed in the H.P. Lovecraft: A Comprehensive Bibliography. These are Simon McCulloch’s “The Toad in The Study”, Ghosts & Scholars 20, 1995 (Lovecraft may have been influenced by James’s portrayal of documents and ‘forbidden knowledge’); and Ward Richard’s “In Search of the Dread Ancestor”, Lovecraft Studies 36, 1997 (the Dexter Ward character of Curwen might have been influenced by Count Magnus in the James story “Count Magus”). These claims are possible, yet James had no Lovecraft-related entry at all in the index of the recent volume Lovecraft and Influence, let alone an essay.

A Lovecraft letter also noted James’s death in 1936, though only in passing and among a list of other names of the recently deceased.

Fan scans

The University of Iowa Libraries has announced that they will scan the James L. ‘Rusty’ Hevelin Collection… “in its entirety … 10,000 science fiction fanzines will be digitized”…

Nothing on this scale has been attempted with fanzines before, and we are thrilled to be able to finally address the concern we have been hearing for years from fans and scholars, to find a way to enable them to discover exactly what these pieces contain,” says Greg Prickman, head of special collections. Once digitized, the fanzines will be incorporated into the UI Libraries’ DIY History interface, where a select number of interested fans (up to 30) will be provided with secure access to transcribe, annotate, and index the contents of the fanzines. The transcription will enable the UI Libraries to construct a full-text searchable fanzine resource, with links to authors, editors, and topics, while protecting privacy and copyright by limiting access to the full set of page images.

Opening the boxes, they also seem to be discovering some boxes full of Munsey-era proto-pulps.

“our radio compasses helped us through the opaque fog”

I delved back into the BBC’s archives via the new online archive of Radio Times listings, looking for Lovecraft items on the BBC. The item below is one of their earliest. It perhaps exemplifies why some people had a bad reaction in the 1970s to what they thought was Lovecraft. Because in this case, the nation would have been listening to a 1957 Derleth story wrongly attributed to Lovecraft…

Study on 3
The Horror Story 1: Gothic Tales
20th-century Gothic is illustrated by H.P. Lovecraft’s story The Gable Window, read by EDWARD BISHOP.

So far as I can tell “The Gable Window” was wholly by Derleth, only being very loosely based on Lovecraft via one of the brief story ideas found in the Commonplace Book.

Berkeley Square on TV

The Turner Classic Movies channel is airing the movie Berkeley Square (1933) in November in America (Sunday 23rd of November at 8:15am ET). Currently only available on grainy VHS tape or as a VHS rip, my guess would be that this Turner showing could be the restored 35mm print version which was first screened at the 2011 H.P. Lovecraft Film Festival.

At home — & on my own initiative — I saw Berkeley Square again … Talman & Long, who saw the play, say that the cinema version is slightly inferior. As you say, there are things about the transferred identities of the two Peters which tend to arouse questions [Lovecraft discusses plot points and historical accuracy for a page] But with all its defects this thing gave me an uncanny wallop. When I revisited it I saw it through twice — & I shall probably go again on its next return. It is the most weirdly perfect embodiment of my own moods & pseudo-memories that I have ever seen — for all my life I have felt as if I might wake up out of this dream of an idiotic Victorian age & an insane jazz age into the same reality of 1760 or 1770 or 1780 the age of the white steeples & fanlighted doorways of the ancient hill, & of the long-s’d books of the old dark attic trunk-room at 454 Angell St. (Selected Letters IV, pp.362-364)


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 203 other followers