This post is by Sam Gafford.
Imagine, if you can, a time when no one knew who H. P. Lovecraft was. That’s the way life was back in the 1970s. No one I knew had ever heard of Lovecraft and, if you said “Cthulhu” to someone, their most likely response would be, “Did you just sneeze?”
I first discovered Lovecraft in my high school library around 1978. I was bored and was flipping through the card catalogue (there’s an age litmus test for you right there!) and was looking under the subject “Horror-Literature” when a strange title popped up at me. It was “The Haunter of the Dark and Other Stories” which was actually a UK collection of Lovecraft published by Gollancz. I’ve no idea how that book got in my library but I must have read it through at least three times in one month.
Like myself, I’m sure many of you have your own stories for the first time you found Lovecraft and what it meant to you. The problem with my situation was, after I had read that one book, that was it! There was nothing left to read. There were no more Lovecraft books in my high school library nor did my town library have any. Undeterred, I went to a resource that most of you have probably never even heard of: BOOKS IN PRINT.
You see, back in those dark pre-computer, pre-internet days, libraries and bookstores had this series of massively thick reference books which listed every book that was (at that time) still in print. It was organized by writer and title and had a handy reference in a separate volume listing publisher names, addresses, phone numbers, etc. That was how I learned about Arkham House.
I actually called Arkham House and spoke to a real person (answering machines were still something new back then) who assured me that all of Lovecraft’s works were still in print. I ordered a bunch and was actually able to find some of the old Ballantine paperbacks in a used bookstore. I eagerly devoured every word but there was still one problem: no one else knew Lovecraft.
With today’s instant availability of Lovecraft themed Facebook groups, websites, music, videos and even plush Cthulhu dolls and slippers, it might seem strange to think that there was a time when not only did none of that exist but there was no organized fandom for Lovecraft.
At least, that’s what I thought.
Shortly after I had consumed all the Lovecraft I could find, I learned about Necronomicon Press and ordered some of their publications. I was slowly discovering that, not only was I not alone in my Lovecraft passion, but that there were many others as well. That discovery led to correspondence (via regular mail, not the amazingly quick route of e-mail) and the forging of great friendships which still remain strong today.
And, as my ties to this new Lovecraft community grew stronger, a funny thing happened: Lovecraft himself began to get noticed.
By this time, I had discovered that Lovecraft was very well known in some circles but not so much in what one would call ‘proper literature’ circles. This was slowly beginning to change. Through the efforts of many (including a very small contribution on my part), Lovecraft was beginning to be studied seriously by critics. He was finally emerging from the dark cloud of obscurity which had covered him all those years. New writers, artists, filmmakers, musicians and publishers were proudly proclaiming how Lovecraft had influenced them. What had once been a small community of fans gradually enveloped the world.
I have seen many changes since finding that first book back in 1978. Lovecraft is now considered a major writer and is studied in universities as well as being included in the prestigious LIBRARY OF AMERICA series. Major motion pictures have been based on his work and countless scholarly volumes have appeared examining not only his life and work but reprinting hundreds of his voluminous letters.
All of which, I’m sure you know. Otherwise, you wouldn’t be on this website or reading this right now.
But, here’s the kicker: there are times you can look back at your life and seen how it could have gone one way or the other. When I had read all the Lovecraft there was to read and felt alone is one of those times for me. I could’ve very easily just moved on from there and found other writers to read or other things to be interested in and investigate. The reason I didn’t is because I found in Lovecraft what I especially needed at that time: a community.
I was a painfully shy teenager who never fit in anywhere. I wasn’t a Brainiac, or a burn-out and certainly never a jock. I was the stereotypical kid with his nose always in a science fiction novel that you see in all sorts of movies and TV shows. But, in Lovecraft, I not only found a writer whose stories spoke to me like nothing ever had before but friends who felt the same way. Because of that connection, I went on to become a writer and publisher myself but I probably never would have followed that path if I hadn’t discovered this community and experienced their encouragement and support.
I’d like to think that, in some way, we were able to repay Lovecraft by spreading his work and expanding the critical knowledge of his life and writings. My hope is that, at the end, both I and Lovecraft benefited from that unexpected meeting in a Connecticut High School now almost 40 years ago. Today, interest in Lovecraft is at an all-time high and the Lovecraft community that was spawned so long ago is now a world-wide network. I am eager to see where all of you take Lovecraft in the future. I’m sure it’ll be as special to you as it was to me.
By Sam Gafford – check out his William Hope Hodgson Blog!
Hi – same story with me but I was growing up in the seventies in Manchester England. Found HPL in a library – I think it was in the same Gollanz series – and then devoured everything I could find. Went on to study English at university and even wrote a thesis on Lovecraft at a time when he was utterly unknown. I don’t think I ever met anyone who had even heard of him until the nineties!
Yeah, it wasn’t until the late 80s when Lovecraft really started getting a lot of attention. Then it was like an avalanche!
Those Ballantyne paperbacks — I still have my tattered copies! The cover illustrations are super-creepy.
How could you NOT want to buy those Ballantine paperbacks with those covers? They were like nothing else on the racks!
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True –grotesque and alluring at the same time.
I discovered Lovecraft in the late 1960s, around the time I found Robert E. Howard and Edgar Rice Burroughs. Good times.
Yes, I also found them all at around the same time: REH, ERB and Michael Moorcock. And still enjoy them all to this day. I remember subscribing to the fanzine ‘Amra’ in the early 70s. God, it must have been one of the most sporadic publications ever — but it was the first inklings I had that I wasn’t the only person getting enjoyment from this stuff. Wish to Hell I had hung on to those old issues, now.
Lovely article, Sam. Thank you. And I’m very much looking forward to looking through your Hodgson blog. I would have ‘discovered’ HPL maybe a couple of years before you so recognise quite a bit. With one small difference: I sometimes rather miss that long-ago period when he felt like some Big Secret that was known to only myself and a happy few.
I guess that some people are never satisfied!
I kind of miss those days too, Charley! It really made you feel like you were part of a secret group. Although it’s great to see HPL getting so much attention and acclaim these days, I miss when it was just us faithful few prowling around Providence!