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Photograph of American writer H. P. Lovecraft

H. P. Lovecraft and women

I discovered many things as a kid from listening to the English band Iron Maiden: Coleridge’s poem Rime of the Ancient Mariner, the Phantom of the Opera, ancient Greek and Egyptian history, and the significant imagery of the Revelations chapter of the Bible.

But there was one thing in particular that seems to have had a lasting effect: On the fold-out sleeve of their Live after Death album, which my brother got as a Christmas present on cassette, there was a picture of the band’s notorious zombie-like mascot, Eddie T. Headbanger, busting out of a grave, reanimated by a lightning strike — and in the background on his headstone, the quote: ‘That which is not dead may eternally lie, but in strange eons, even death may die.’

Attributed to someone called H. P. Lovecraft, I didn’t completely understand what it meant, except that it was about coming back to life, and aeons stuck with me as a kind of salient word of mystery.

A few years later, in the second year of high school, I heard his name again, H. P. Lovecraft, when an English teacher told me about him in connection with a role playing game called Call of Cthulhu.

The game sounded exciting, and I wondered who this guy was to have created such a weird world of creatures, enough for Iron Maiden to have also liked him?

I then did a terrible thing, and stole a couple of his books from a local bookshop. In a further sneaky move, I gave these books to my brother to then give to me as a Christmas present, a very basic form of money laundering.

But dubiously acquired, or not, I absolutely loved these books; and that was it, I was hooked! — and not just on Lovecraft, but the whole Cthulhu mythos circle; a swathe of writers contributing their own gods and monsters to Lovecraft’s strange universe  . . .  Frank Belknap Long, August Derleth and Robert E. Howard.

That same summer, one of my strongest memories was of sitting on a Sydney beach on Christmas day, reading The Call of Cthulhu, and stopping every now and then to look out at the sea, imagining a giant green creature rising out of the water.

The peacefulness of the day, and this turbulent story set in the 1920s, naturally should have been at odds; but there was relevance between them: the location of Lovecraft’s sleeping god Cthulhu was somewhere in the Pacific ocean, the same sea I was looking out to.

Picture of Pencil Stub

Over the years, Lovecraft has become better known, growing out of fandom circles, more into popular culture, partly thanks to a more globally connected world.  A significant milestone came in 1999 when Penguin Books published his The Call of Cthulhu and other Weird Stories marking his acceptance into mainstream publishing, partly thanks to a life-long push by Lovecraft scholar S. T. Joshi.

But with his growth, has also come a greater spotlight on Lovecraft the man; and he has become a very controversial figure, with his racism and general misanthropy under the microscope.

One thing that I have thought about for a long time is that he is someone who has has been labelled as having a fear of women. However, I feel that some of his behaviour contradicts these opinions.

He might have been afraid of women, as at some levels, many men are. But I also believe he was a champion of women, and did not see them as a professional threat in the way that many other literary men of his era did. He knew what it was like to be an outsider, and this was part of the reason he could identify with them.

F. Scott Fitzgerald was around at the same time as Lovecraft and achieved literary success in a way that Lovecraft could only have dreamed of . . . however, Fitzgerald also blocked his wife from having a writing career of her own, when she tried to write a story about their turbulent marriage. Without slinging too much mud, the publishing world was dominated by men at this time, despite women having a natural inclination towards writing.

I feel that Lovecraft was already an outsider to the publishing world (part of his deep bitterness), despite being viewed as a legend within Weird Tales magazine by fellow authors and readers. Other writers saw him as a dabbler, and even worse, an ‘amateur writer’ — which would have stung deeply for someone who absolutely loved books and writing, and in many ways, felt it was his birthright to succeed as a literary man.

His income from selling stories was very small, partly because he was not producing enough, not in the way that many pulp writers worked, pumping out words by the gallon; at one stage, he was finishing no more than a story a year. So his meagre publishing income was substituted by editing and correcting the work of others, many of them women.

The Arkham House anthology The Horror in the Museum and Other Revisions (1970) put together by August Derleth is a collection of these stories that were revised by Lovecraft. Out of the twenty tales, twelve of them are written by women: Sonia Greene, who would become his wife of ten years, Hazel Heald, Zealia Bishop and Elizabeth Berkeley.

Although he was being paid to edit their work, he did not see it as a waste of time, and would encourage these women to become better writers. “I had learned from him fundamental principles of writing technique and the appreciation of literature,” wrote Zealia Bishop in her memoir, “My debt to Lovecraft is great. I count myself fortunate that I was one of his epistolary friends and pupils.”

I had picked up The Horror in the Museum in the garage sale of an experimental electronic music guy in trendy Newtown. About ten years later, I came across another book which caught my eye, The Citadel of Fear by Francis Stevens. I was amazed to find a quote by Lovecraft on the back calling it a “wonderful and tragic allegory.” Was Francis a male name, like my grandfather?

No, it was another female writer. This book, written in tough conditions — Stevens husband had died, and she was working and raising a daughter on her own — drew on the Pre-Columbian mythology of Mexico and Central America about a race of white ape people. Stevens’ story had been published in Argosy magazine when Lovecraft was about 28 — and though not yet a well-known writer, he had written in to congratulate them on it:

Citadel of Fear, if written by Sir Walter Scott or Ibanez, that wonderful and tragic allegory would have been praised to the skies . . . I feel so much interested in the motif of that curious tale that I should like very much to have my curiosity gratified . . . would like a sketch of the life of Stevens, and particularly the source and development of The Citadel of Fear. That story would make one amazing moving-picture drama, if taken up by the right moving-picture managers . . . Stevens, to my mind, is the highest grade of your writers.”

Simply writing in to congratulate a female writer of a story that he liked does not make him a champion of women. However, I still think that it shows someone who respects literature and talent enough not to see it as a male-female divide, or to indulge in feelings of jealousy, as men often can, when it comes to feeling that some ‘other’ has beaten them at their own game.

Lovecraft was perhaps just impressed enough to want to know more about her, a motivation of genuine curiosity.

Picture of Pencil Stub

Men do have a fear of women. One of those fears is of being displaced — an absolutely persistent fear perhaps for all human beings — but in this case, a deep male fear that the male ‘qualities’, whatever they might be at this present time, will eventually no longer be needed or valued in the future. That men will no longer be the captain of their own ship could mean a future plagued with feelings of uselessness and low self-esteem.

Though this is a stereotype, there are certain qualities that women seem to develop more easily, like emotional intelligence, whereas men struggle with it. Having an emotional intelligence is not regarded as much of a male quality, even though the ability to accurately size up a social situation is useful now in the way that we work with highly abstracted processes.

The history of men working with each other, however, has been based on a clear hierarchy defined through strength and aggression, sometimes in the form of bullying; and these qualities have not carried over well into the new century.

Lovecraft didn’t seem to engage in any of this stuff, and was perhaps more on the side of having an emotional intelligence. If anything, his anger and competitiveness was directed more at the world, a form of frustration with his own personal failings that perhaps manifested in his racist rants and dispassionate put-downs of people who were different to him.

But behind all this, there was still a person there who did want to connect with people, the evidence for this being the nearly one hundred-thousand letters he wrote over his life time to more than a hundred people across America, both men and women, all from different backgrounds.

His stories may not have been full of human relationships and drama —  something he would often point out to his friends in letters — but he was also not the controlling type either. He was not attempting to paint women in the way that he wanted them to be, as many other male writers have over the years, casting aspersions on women, reflecting them in a bad light — and at worst — sharing their intimate details. He just let them be.

And for all his failings, I still think that Lovecraft was respectful of women, and had empathy with them through identifying with them as the underdog . . . he was also someone who championed women writers at a time when it was not particularly fashionable to do so.

*Thanks to the research of Sam Moscowitz and August Derleth.

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