Staying up with It
In my dubious career as a scholar of religion, I know very well that, if you want to write a scholarly article and have it accepted for publication, you’d better acquaint yourself with the history of research on your topic. No need (or excuse) to reinvent the wheel. Especially if others are liable to know that history. Your ignorance will brand you and discredit you. Of course, some have attained academic success while retaining a remarkable degree of ignorance because of that eternal verity, “It’s not what you know but who you know.” I won’t mention any famous names, but I could.
It’s the same way in the much tinier fishbowl of Lovecraft scholarship. I always used to warn inquirers interested in writing something for Crypt of Cthulhu that they’d better familiarize themselves with as much as they could of previous Lovecraft scholarship first, to make sure no one else had already beat them to the punch. And, given the prolific contributions of Dirk Mosig, Dick Tierney, S.T. Joshi, Dave Schultz, Don Burleson, Peter Cannon, Will Murray, Darrell Schweitzer, Steve Mariconda, William Fulwiler, et al., there might be pretty slim pickings left. Little meat remaining for the latecomer to the buffet at the corpse-eating cult of Leng. Not that I wanted to discourage anyone. Indeed this was the only way to get people to pioneer new areas of HPLish research. And of course many have!
So researchers have the constant pressure to “stay up with the literature.” But is this equally true of writers of Lovecraftian fiction? To some extent, yes. You don’t want to unwittingly use the same ideas others have used (hypertext treatments notwithstanding), even if you came up with your idea independently. You want to be recognized as an independent voice, even if you are consciously writing in a tradition or trajectory established by someone else, and there’s no reason you shouldn’t. I’m delighted to read good pastiches of Lovecraft, Howard, Edgar Rice Burroughs, M.R. James, etc. I love Tom Ligotti, and I recognize a kindred Ligottian spirit in Mike Cisco and Simon Stranzas. But in these cases, you are still well advised to read as widely as you can in the field, like a shark drifting open-mouthed through a sea of plankton. You can’t be inspired by those you have not read.
But the more you write, the less you find yourself reading. Who has the time? It’s triage. But I think you will come to this point only once you have read enough and picked up enough tricks of the trade to have it all gel and turn into your own thing. By reading and by writing, we learn to write. And once we do, I guess we don’t need to read so much. We’ll feel frustrated, though, because we’ll want to read more of the goodies available so freely to those with more spare time on their page-turning hands.
I suppose that the old anxiety returns when some new wave breaks on the shore and we fear being left behind as a relic of a previous school or trend. You’ll only really worry about that insofar as commercial concerns predominate over artistic inspiration.
But on the other hand, it’s always good to receive rejuvenating, invigorating influences, new demons to possess you. I’m sure glad Lovecraft didn’t stop reading and stick to writing once he had his fill of Poe and Dunsany. Sure am glad he read a lot of Machen, John Taine, and Algernon Blackwood. His work shows their valuable influence. What would Lovecraft’s fiction have looked like if, for instance, he had not indulged his curiosity to read Machen? Well, no “Dunwich Horror,” for one thing, since a major portion of that story’s DNA comes right out of “The Great God Pan,” “The White People,” “The Terror,” and “The Black Seal.” Had he never discovered Dunsany, we might still have his “Dunsanian” tales, since he already had the vision and voice for those stories in “The White Ship” before he ever read a line of old Plunkett. But without Dunsany’s “A Shop in Go-by Street,” there would have been no “Call of Cthulhu” (something I have demonstrated elsewhere).
It would be interesting to imagine what Lovecraft might have written had he chanced to read a different selection of previous writers rather than the ones he did in fact read. It would be even more interesting for someone cleverer than me to try his hand at reimagining, say, “The Dunwich Horror” as if Lovecraft had not been influenced by Machen but by someone else instead, take your pick. Now that’s what I call a “posthumous collaboration.” Any takers?
Robert M. Price,
Hierophant of the Horde
Robert M. Price is an American theologian and writer. He teaches philosophy and religion at the Johnnie Colemon Theological Seminary, is professor of biblical criticism at the Center for Inquiry Institute, and the author of a number of books on theology and the historicity of Jesus, including Deconstructing Jesus (2000), The Reason Driven Life (2006), Jesus is Dead (2007), Inerrant the Wind: The Evangelical Crisis in Biblical Authority (2009), The Case Against the Case for Christ (2010), and The Amazing Colossal Apostle: The Search for the Historical Paul (2012).
A former Baptist minister, he was the editor of the Journal of Higher Criticism from 1994 until it ceased publication in 2003, and has written extensively about the Cthulhu Mythos, a “shared universe” created by the writer H. P. Lovecraft.
If you enjoyed this article, let Bob know by commenting below — and please use the Facebook, Twitter, and Google Plus buttons below to spread the word.