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H.P. Lovecraft Misconceptions

It is an unfortunate fact that every man who seeks to disseminate knowledge must contend not only against ignorance itself, but against false instruction as well. No sooner do we deem ourselves free from a particularly gross superstition, than we are confronted by some enemy to learning who would set aside all the intellectual progress of years, and plunge us back into the darkness of mediaeval disbelief.

to The Providence Evening News, 5 September 1914

Many misconceptions have arisen about Lovecraft due primarily to misinterpretations of his ideas and philosophies, a practice which began with his correspondent, August Derleth. In addition, the hoax editions of the Necronomicon that are popularly available have spread much misinformation, as have web-based sources of “information” on the Necronomicon. These latter sources are perhaps the worst offenders since their success depends on the believability of their hoax.

Myth: Lovecraft was a reclusive stay-at-home who never left New England

Lovecraft has often been referred to as a recluse, perhaps because it is believed that he corresponded with people more than fraternized with them in person. However, it is clear from his letters that he spent a considerable amount of time visiting with friends both at home and throughout the eastern United States. In fact, one might argue that he was probably able to associate with his friends and correspondents more than most people can because of his ever-present lack of employment!

Lovecraft traveled often and wrote at length about those travels. His travelogues include “Vermont—A First Impression” (1927), “Observations on Several Parts of America” (1928), “Travels in the Provinces of America” (1929), “An Account of a Visit to Charleston” (1930), and A Description of the Town of Quebeck, in New France, Lately Added to His Britannick Majesty’s Dominions. At 75,000 words, Quebeck was Lovecraft’s longest work (roughly 50% longer than The Case of Charles Dexter Ward), and he described it as “136 pages of this crabbed cacography.” His travels took him as far south as De Land, Florida and New Orleans, Louisiana; as far west as Cleveland, Ohio; as far north as Quebec, Canada; and out to the island of Nantucket for a week. Hardly a “recluse.”

Myth: Lovecraft was a homosexual

The facts that Lovecraft had little success with women and had many male friends have led people to believe that he was a homosexual. However, it must be remembered that he was married (briefly) and his wife described him as an “adequately excellent lover” (Sonia H. Davis, “Memories of Lovecraft: I,” The Arkham Collector, No. 4, Winter 1969). Some of Lovecraft’s friends and acquaintances (most notably, Robert H. Barlow, Samuel Loveman, and Hart Crane) were homosexuals, but Lovecraft apparently didn’t even realize this. Lovecraft makes his attitudes on homosexuality clear in a letter to J. Vernon Shea dated 14 August 1933:

As a matter of fact—although of course I always knew that paederasty was a disgusting custom of many ancient nations—I never heard of homosexuality as an actual instinct till I was over thirty . . . which beats your record! It is possible, I think that this perversion occurs more frequently in some periods than in others—owing to obscure biological & psychological causes. Decadent ages—when psychology is unsettled—seem to favour it. Of course—in ancient times the extent of the practice of paederasty (as a custom which most simply accepted blindly, without any special inclination) cannot be taken as any measure of the extent of actual psychological perversion.

In addition, in a letter to August Derleth dated 16 February 1933, Lovecraft also writes, “So far as the case of homosexuality goes, the primary and vital objection against it is that it is naturally (physically and involuntarily—not merely ‘morally’ or aesthetically) repugnant to the overwhelming bulk of mankind...” Some might argue that this was merely defensive posturing on Lovecraft’s part, and yet no evidence exists to indicate that he had any homosexual inclinations. But, this is not to say that his heterosexual inclinations were especially strong, either. Lovecraft, like many intellectuals, focused his attentions and efforts on mental, rather than physical, pursuits, and simply didn’t have very strong sexual interests at all.

Myth: August Derleth’s “Posthumous collaborations”

After Lovecraft’s death, August Derleth took fragments of Lovecraft’s writings (from his Commonplace Book, for example), and incorporated them into stories entirely of Derleth’s own design. According to S.T. Joshi’s Bibliography, Derleth’s The Lurker at the Threshold is 50,000 words long, and only incorporates 1,200 words by Lovecraft—that’s about 2.4%. None of these “posthumous collaborations” should be considered to have been authored by Lovecraft. In spite of this, these stories have been published as being authored by Lovecraft and Derleth, or, worse yet, solely by Lovecraft. Both the Carroll & Graf paperbacks, The Lurker at the Threshold and The Watchers Out of Time include only Lovecraft’s name on their covers, although they are almost wholly Derleth’s work. (You can read more about this on the page about August Derleth’s “Posthumous Collaborations”.)

Myth: “Hastur the Unspeakable” was an invention of Lovecraft’s

Hastur is only mentioned by Lovecraft in one story, “The Whisperer in Darkness.” In one of the two instances, Hastur is mentioned in the same breath as many other creatures, places, and things:

“I found myself faced by names and terms that I had heard elsewhere in the most hideous of connexions—Yuggoth, Great Cthulhu, Tsathoggua, Yog-Sothoth, R’lyeh, Nyarlathotep, Azathoth, Hastur, Yian, Leng, the Lake of Hali, Bethmoora, the Yellow Sign, L’mur-Kathulos, Bran, and the Magnum Innominandum—and was drawn back through nameless aeons and inconceivable dimensions to worlds of elder, outer entity at which the crazed author of the Necronomicon had only guessed in the vaguest way.”

Hastur was borrowed by Lovecraft from Robert W. Chambers (“The Yellow Sign” and “The Repairer of Reputations”), who had, in turn, borrowed it from Ambrose Bierce. In “An Inhabitant of Carcosa,” Bierce describes Hastur as a god of shepherds. Chambers later uses the name as that of a city. Lovecraft never makes it clear what he intends Hastur to be—his off-the-cuff remark is intended only to evoke atmosphere.

In the list above from “The Whisperer in Darkness,” note the last thing mentioned, “the Magnum Innominandum,” which is Latin for “The Great Not-to-Be Named.” As usual, Lovecraft doesn’t make it clear what this is, but Derleth apparently combined this reference with that of Hastur to create “Hastur the Unspeakable.”

Myth: Lovecraft’s Black Magic Quote

In his introduction to Arkham House’s “The Dunwich Horror and Others,” August Derleth makes the following comment:

“The pattern of the Mythos is a pattern that is basic in the history of mankind, representing as it does the primal struggle between good and evil; in this, it is essentially similar to the Christian Mythos, especially relating to the expulsion of Satan from Eden and Satan’s lasting power of evil. ‘All my stories, unconnected as they may be,’ wrote Lovecraft, ‘are based on the fundamental lore or legend that this world was inhabited at one time by another race who, in practising black magic, lost their foothold and were expelled, yet live on outside ever ready to take possession of this earth again.’”

In fact, this quote did not come from Lovecraft, but from Harold Farnese, a brief correspondent of Lovecraft. After Lovecraft’s death, Derleth wrote Farnese, asking if he could borrow the letters from Lovecraft. Farnese gladly agreed, and mailed the letters to Derleth. In letters Farnese then wrote to Derleth, he often “quoted” Lovecraft—these quotes appear to be, at best, paraphrases. In one, Farnese writes:

“Upon congratulating HPL upon his work, he answered: ‘You will, of course, realize that all my stories, unconnected as they may be, are based on one fundamental lore or legend: that this world was inhabited at one time by another race, who in practicing black magic, lost their foothold and were expelled, yet live on outside, ever ready to take possession of this earth again.’”

Derleth took this “quote” as fact and used it on several occasions, but investigation into Lovecraft’s letters does not reveal this “quote.” In several other letters to Derleth, Farnese quotes the letters he sent to Derleth, yet comparison to the letters themselves reveals that Farnese was not quoting, but merely recalling. Farnese at one point refers to a writer for Weird Tales by the name of “Bellknap Jones”—an obvious misreference to Frank Belknap Long. (For a fuller discussion of this long-standing misconception, see David E. Schultz’ “The Origin of Lovecraft’s ‘Black Magic’ Quote” in Crypt of Cthulhu, issue 48.)

Myth: Lovecraft’s Elder Sign

At no point in Lovecraft’s tales does he give a physical description of the Elder Sign. He mentions it a scant four times, and these seem to imply that it is a hand gesture. In a letter to Clark Ashton Smith dated November 7, 1930, Lovecraft ends with the following comment:

“Again thanking you in Tsathoggua’s name for the recent shipment, & hoping to see more items from your pen ere long, I append the Elder Sign & the Seal of N’gah, given in the Dark Cycle of Y’hu.”

Following this Lovecraft signed his name (“Ec’h-Pi-El”) and drew two peculiar figures. The latter, the Seal of N’gah, looks something like a stag beetle, having six legs and three horns. The former, the Elder Sign, looks something like the branch of a pine or fir tree, and is shown to the right. The misconception that the Elder Sign is a pentagram with a flaming eye in the center is probably due to August Derleth’s description of it in his The Lurker at the Threshold.

Myth: The Necronomicon is real

Easily the most widespread misconception regarding Lovecraft, this subject would probably require an entire book to document all the hoaxes surrounding it. For more information on this hoax, take a look at the Truth About the Necronomicon page. The myths following this are due to these hoax editions.

Myth: Lovecraft’s father was a Freemason

For this misconception we have Colin Wilson’s introduction to the George Hay edition of The Necronomicon to thank:

Dr. Stanislaus Hinterstoisser...wrote to me, via Carl [Tausk], telling me that he could not go into details about the source of his knowledge about Lovecraft’s father, but that he could state categorically not only that Winfield Lovecraft was an Egyptian Freemason, but that he possessed at least two magical works, the famous Picatrix of Maslama ibn Ahma al-Magritit, also known as pseudo-Magriti, and Godziher’s Book of the Essence of the Soul.

Wilson goes on to claim that the Necronomicon, which Lovecraft indicates in “The Dunwich Horror” is at least 751 pages long, makes up a mere portion of the Book of the Essence of the Soul! Thus, he is claiming that Winfield Lovecraft actually possessed a superset of the Necronomicon. In spite of all this nonsense, in the St. John’s Eve 1984 issue of Crypt of Cthulhu Colin Wilson admitted that this edition was “such an obvious spoof.” As if his pointing this out was necessary.

Although there’s no evidence to indicate that Lovecraft’s father was a Mason, his grandfather, Whipple Van Buren Phillips, was very active in Freemasonry. Whipple Phillips owned much of the land in and around the town of Greene, Rhode Island, and founded Ionic Lodge No. 28 there in 1870. The lodge hall, which still stands and has been used by the masons since 1886, houses a portrait of Phillips. Despite this, there’s still no reason to believe that the Freemasons, Egyptian or otherwise, have access to rare copies of a fictional book.

Myth: Lovecraft’s inspiration for his creations came from the mythology of ancient Sumer

This common misconception stems from the hoax edition of the Necronomicon edited by “Simon.” The bulk of this book is supposedly based on Sumerian and Babylonian mythology and claims that Lovecraft drew on similar sources when he created his pseudo-mythology. It makes comparisons between Lovecraft’s creatures and figures in Sumerian mythology:

Lovecraft Sumer
Cthulhu Ctha-lu, Kutulu
Azathoth Azag-thoth
Shub-Niggurath Shub Ishniggarab

These comparisons are especially tenuous, since none of these things exist in Sumerian or Babylonian mythology! Referring to any good text on either mythology demonstrates this. In addition, suggesting that Lovecraft had to lift these names from an existing mythology both goes against his habit of creating entirely non-human names for his creatures and diminishes the quality of his imagination.

Myth: Lovecraft (or his wife, Sonia) was associated with Aleister Crowley

Again, we have the “Simon” edition of the Necronomicon to thank for this misconception. The book implies some sort of vague connection between Lovecraft and Crowley:

     That a reclusive author of short stories who lived in a quiet neighborhood in New England and the manic, infamous Master Magician who called the world his home, should have somehow met in the sandy wastes of some forgotten civilization seems incredible. That they should both have become Prophets and Forerunners of a New Aeon of Man’s history is equally, if not more, unbelievable. Yet, with H.P. Lovecraft and Aleister Crowley, the unbelievable was a commonplace of life. These two men, both acclaimed as geniuses by their followers and admirers, and who never actually met, stretched their legs across the world, and in the Seven League Boots of the mind they did meet, and on common soil . . . . Sumeria.

There’s that “recluse” myth popping up again... This is just the sort of vague implications that says nothing, but causes the reader to see something. In addition, Colin Low’s Necronomicon Anti-FAQ also infers a connection between Lovecraft and Crowley. This time, it’s Lovecraft’s wife, Sonia Greene:

In 1918 Crowley was in New York. As always, he was trying to establish his literary reputation, and was contributing to The International and Vanity Fair. Sonia Greene was an energetic and ambitious Jewish emigre with literary ambitions, and she had joined a dinner and lecture club called “Walker’s Sunrise Club” (?!); it was there that she first encountered Crowley, who had been invited to give a talk on modern poetry.... Crowley did not waste time as far as women were concerned; they met on an irregular basis for some months.

Once again, such claims are entirely unsubstantiated. Low also claims that Lovecraft had heard of the Necronomicon from Greene who had, in turn, heard of it from Crowley. This is a fortunate coincidence, since Lovecraft first mentions the Necronomicon in “The Hound,” which he wrote in mid-October 1921—only three months after having met Greene. However, Lovecraft first mentions Abdul Alhazred, the author of the Necronomicon, in “The Nameless City” (which he wrote in January 1921) a full six months before having met Greene. Still, all this is moot since Colin Low has openly admitted that his “Necronomicon Anti-FAQ,” like the book it discusses, is a hoax.

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