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Cliff Almas's review of
H.P. Lovecraft A Biography By L. Sprauge De Camp

Copyright 1975 by L. Sprague De Camp
Edition reviewed published by Barnes & Noble Books 1996

This biography is exhaustively researched and annotated, yet flawed by some glaring errors and the distaste the biographer clearly feels for his subject. L. Sprauge De Camp is best known for a series of ill-considered pastiches and 'posthumous collaborations' done to flesh out the Robert E. Howard Conan series. He states quite clearly that his literary preference is for the brawling, macho, non-too-intellectual adventures of swordsmen and warriors. Nothing could be more different from the timid antiquarians and tubuculear dilettantes who people the stories of Lovecraft. When confronted by a slimy, monstrous elder god risen from the deep, Lovecraft's heroes don't hew them down with broadswords or even just pistols. They generally faint or go insane. Right from the beginning of this weighty tome, De Camp draws a link between the bookish heroes of Lovecraft's stories and Lovecraft himself. And right from the beginning De Camp confesses to having little patience for Lovecraft's neuroses, prejudices and almost complete inability to function as a responsible adult. Although his ambivalence for his subject does provide a more balanced perspective than the glowing tributes written by Lovecraft's friends and fans, De Camp's tone of weary contempt begins to wear after awhile. De Camp exhaustively addresses one of the most troubling elements of Lovecraft's life and work: his racism, anti-Semitism and white supremacist views. De Camp shows quite clearly that this is primarily the result of Lovecraft's bizarre upbringing by parents who both went insane and ended up in institutions, and later by his elderly aunts who had a full complement of old New England upper class pretensions but no money to justify them. Although frequent examples of Lovecraft's xenophobia and racism can be found in his stories and voluminous correspondence, it is important to note that his views evolved as he ventured out of his sheltered home in Providence and actually met some of the people he was slandering. Ultimately this was a man with friends actively fighting racism against blacks, Jewish friends, and (briefly) a Jewish wife. A man who at the end of his life was deeply embarrassed by the dogmatic ignorance of his youthful opinions. And it is here that we find some of De Camp's more troubling mistakes and oversights. Although he is caustic about Lovecraft's racism he is strangely silent about that of his posthumous bread-earner Robert E. Howard, a frequent correspondent of Lovecraft. If anything Howard was even more viciously racist than Lovecraft was. Then there is the baffling mistake made over the death of magician Harry Houdini, one of Lovecraft's frequent ghostwriting clients. De Camp states in the text that Houdini died of cancer. This is odd since every other source states clearly that he died of peritonitis caused by a ruptured appendix, possibly exasperated by being punched in the stomach by a Canadian College student. It's a minor enough mistake but one that casts doubt on every other fact in the book. Lovecraft's literary strongpoints and failings are carefully and sometimes harshly appraised. De Camp doesn't have much good to say about Lovecraft's florid 18th century style and the 'adjectivitis' that particularly marred his early work. De Camp does praise Lovecraft's better stories such as 'A Color out of Space' and 'The Lurker at the Threshold'. Lovecraft was a conflicted, contradictory personality and what comes through most clearly even in this flawed biography is a sense of wasted potential. Lovecraft wrote to hundreds of correspondents in his lifetime, sometimes dozens of letters filling as many as forty pages each in the course of a single week. Although De Camp recognized the inestimable value to the biographer of the thousands of pages of Lovecraft letters still in existence, he expresses horror that a working writer would waste so much time on unpaid writing. It's a point of view that is hard to dispute. Ultimately Lovecraft was a writer who created a darkly beautiful, internally consistent universe. A universe that contained the blood freezing horror of the elder gods and the surreal beauty of the Dreamlands. His work has inspired such writers as Roger Zelazny, Neil Gaiman, Stephan King and thousands of others. His influential shadow falls over the entire horror and fantasy genres.


Cliff Almas

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