A new article in The Airship suggests the influence of M.R. James on 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’s Count Magnus). 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.

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