A Haunted Mind: Inside the Dark, Twisted World of H. P. Lovecraft, Written by Bob Curran.
New Page Books. Trade Paperback. August, 2012. 352 pgs. $19.99.
(NOTE FROM MIKE DAVIS: My wife constantly refers to me as a “softy”. It’s true. Many writers send me books to review, but as you probably know, if I don’t like the book, I don’t typically mention it. After all, maybe it’s someone’s first attempt, or perhaps it’s merely a question of taste. Of course, if I do enjoy the book, I say so. Recommending only the best Lovecraftian books is something I take seriously.
The point is, this is the first time I have published a negative review. But please keep reading, and you’ll see why I’ve made an exception.)
Reviewed by Sam Gafford.
This is a bad book. It is flawed on so many levels that it is difficult to pick just one with which to start this review.
In truth, I thought that we had seen the last of these types of Lovecraft books with L. Sprague deCamp’s abysmal LOVECRAFT: A BIOGRAPHY in 1975. It’s been that long since I’ve seen a book so filled with misinformation, wild accusations and just plain absurd conclusions that I had come to believe we’ve moved beyond such dreck. Sadly, I am proven wrong with Curran’s inexplicably schizophrenic book.
It is difficult to fathom Curran’s purpose in writing this book. His attitude towards Lovecraft the man is nothing less than hateful and borders on the libelous. And yet, he seems to take great delight in talking about the trappings of Lovecraft’s fiction as he tears down the writer himself. It is almost as if Curran resents the fact that such things were created by a man whom he so obviously dislikes even to the point of pathological hatred.
The book is divided into several parts. A biographical section starts off the book and then it careens wildly into exploring Forbidden Books, Mythos Characters and Mythos locations. It is the last three sections that take up the majority of the book, mercifully.
However, it is the biographical chapter that commits the most heinous errors.
I suppose that when one subtitles a book Inside the Dark, Twisted World of H. P. Lovecraft then an objective, balanced examination is not to be expected. Still, Curran provides a biography that rivals deCamp’s for inaccuracies and blatant character assassination.
It is not merely that Curran gets some facts wrong but that he presents his own personal conclusions as “facts”. In this way, he violates the objective viewpoint of a biographer and becomes a “commentator” and Curran clearly has some very strong issues with Lovecraft.
Were I to point out all of the errors, this review would be nearly as long as the book itself. However, let us look at some of the more egregious statements:
- For someone who assumed affected speech, had eccentric interests, put on airs of superiority, and often made bizarre facial grimaces, school was a difficult place. The other teenagers called him “Lovey” and bullied him physically, mentally, and emotionally. Because of his aversion to popular forms of music and dancing and his lack of interest in women, rumors circulated that he was homosexual. He had no girlfriends and his odd mannerisms kept him apart from all of his classmates. (p. 10)
- He withdrew from the school [Hope Street High School] in 1905, citing the reasons that he had used at Slater Avenue: a nervous condition and a weak constitution. The real reason may have been his difficulty with and dislike for his fellow students. He took to wandering about the streets at night talking to himself and stopping at lighted windows to peer in and frighten small children. (p. 10)
- In his attempt to repress any sexual desires (and it may be that sex simply did not interest him), Lovecraft seemed to withdraw even more from his peers. He became fearful of various conditions, one of which was wide-open spaces. This fear would later manifest itself in some of his writings that involved vast subterranean caverns and limitless gulfs between worlds. The darkness that was starting to infest his mind was slowly taking shape. (p. 11)
- He left the UAPA in 1917 and joined a rival writers’ group called the National Amateur Press Association. He later claimed that the sole reason for his defection was to bring the two groups closer, but it’s more likely because he thought his high intellect and work were not being fully appreciated. (p. 13)
- In his magazine, The Conservative (which had strong right-wing views), he complained about immigrants–Italians, Poles, Irish, and other–entering the country in terms that would not be far removed from the perspectives of Adolph Hitler. (p. 13)
- [Farnsworth] Wright was far less tolerant of Lovecraft. He was not as enamored with his style as Baird had been, and preferred to give work to Robert E. Howard, who had a more gritty style, and it’s thought that he didn’t particularly like Lovecraft personally. (p. 16)
- Some have commented that, for Lovecraft, it was “love at first dollar.” Sonia had already financed two issues of a magazine called The Rainbow in which Lovecraft’s writings were featured, so he may have also seen her as a financial opportunity to self-publish more of his work. (pg. 18)
- Yet as a person, H. P. Lovecraft could not be counted as “normal” in any accepted social sense. He was cosseted, selfish, and something of a sponger who placed his own needs far above others. He was emotionally stunted and was not even a good or trustworthy friend. His vision was narrow, inhibited, and formulaic. (p. 27)
Most of these comments do not even deserve rebuttal as they are known to be patently false to even the most casual of Lovecraft readers. Here we see once again the tired chestnuts of Lovecraft being racist, weird, homosexual and a “mama’s boy”. But Curran has added even new aspects by depicting Lovecraft as a selfish, “gold-digger” with Sonia as well as a pampered wastrel who was content to sponge off of others. In addition, Curran suggests that Lovecraft’s movement towards more cosmic and science fiction themes as being a concession towards a desire to write more ‘marketable’ stories.
None of these assertions are correct.
Perhaps most frustrating is the lack of any sort of reference throughout this book. There is no bibliography at all. The index is laughable in its insufficiency. There are no footnotes. In short, none of the claims Curran makes are supported in any way, sense or form. There are simply stated with the attitude that they are to be accepted without question. Thankfully, readers of Lovecraft are much smarter than that.
In another area of my literary life, I am a student of the Jack the Ripper crimes and the many and various theories regarding the mysterious killer’s identity. In many of those books, the scholarly process is the same that Curran has used here: begin with a fact and then build upon it a pile of suppositions and wild conjectures that the end result is presented with the air of truth even though it is far removed from any truth.
The remainder of the book is a confusing combination of historical facts with ‘facts’ from Lovecraft’s and other writer’s Mythos fiction. It is difficult to separate fact from fiction which, I suppose, is Curran’s purpose. Perhaps he is attempting to place the Mythos into a more realistic environment but the end result is simply confusing and frustrating.
The sections that are devoted to Mythos Monsters and Locations actually take up a great portion of the book and, in the end, say nothing new. Any Lovecraft fan would have already learned the majority of this information from other, better sources like Joshi & Shultz’s An H. P. Lovecraft Encyclopedia, Anthony Pearsall’s Lovecraft Lexicon and Daniel Harms’ Cthulhu Mythos Encyclopedia. If someone is a beginner to Lovecraft’s Mythos, they would be better served getting their information from the sources I just mentioned rather than here. If someone is well-read in Lovecraft’s Mythos, they will be insulted by the rehashing of information that has been said previously in other places and said far better.
I do not understand why this book exists.
If it is meant to appeal to the Lovecraft fan, it is a miserable failure as that fan will likely hurl it across the room after reading a few pages. If it is supposed to bring new readers to Lovecraft, it fails in that area as well in that it portrays Lovecraft as such an unappealing person that no one is likely to seek our his work after reading this character mutilation.
In future years, this book will be regarded in the same breath as deCamp’s Lovecraft: A Biography, Derleth’s “Cthulhu Mythos Letter” and Edmund Wilson’s initial assessment of Lovecraft as “a hack”. It is a book best forgotten and ignored.
Reviewed by Sam Gafford.