Starrett and Lovecraft: Lovers of the Macabre

It’s Halloween, the right time to talk about Vincent Starrett and the man behind the Cthulhu mythos: Howard Phillips Lovecraft.

The Crypt of Cthulhu for "Eastertide" 1987. Calling itself "a pulp thriller and theological journal," this issue is dedicated to H.P. Lovecraft's letters, including the handful he wrote to Vincent Starrett.

We don't know exactly how it started, but we can make a good guess. The chances are that in early 1927, Vincent Starrett wrote a fan letter to a young writer in Providence, Rhode Island, by the name of H.P. Lovecraft.

Starrett loved stories with macabre themes by masters like Poe, Arthur Machen and Ambrose Bierce. And when he saw the work of Lovecraft, he no doubt wrote him a letter of praise and asked if Lovecraft had any additional works.

The reclusive Lovecraft was clearly flattered by Starrett’s note, as can be seen the opening of the April 11, 1927 letter Lovecraft wrote in return.

“My dear Mr. Starrett —
I feel very highly complimented by your request to see some of my tales, for work of yours which I have read gives me a very respectful opinion of your judgment in such matters….”

Lovecraft says he is sending Starrett several articles, and has had some luck in getting his work “published in the crowd-cultivating Weird Tales, but believe this market is gradually closing to me on account of the editor’s deference to a clientele demanding simple, understandable ghostliness with plenty of ‘human interest’ & a brisk, concrete, cheerful & non-atmospheric style.”

Anyone who is familiar with Lovecraft’s work knows that he could care less about the “human interest” aspect of his tales, which have deep atmosphere and very little that could be described brisk or cheerful.


Another source of the correspondence between Starrett and Lovecrafdt is this little booklet, published by the Necronomicon Press in October 1994. Copies come up for sale regularly.

The correspondence continued, with Lovecraft continuing to tell Starrett about his latest projects. In a postcard from June 24, 1927, Lovecraft writes “Was pleased to learn the other day that Amazing Stories (a flashy affair whose only merit lies in its voluminous standard reprints) has accepted a rather longish short story of mine called “The Colour out of Space.” It will probably appear soon.”

(In fact, “The Colour out of Space” appeared in the September 1927 issue of Amazing Stories. It was a popular story and I recall feeling a special thrill of fear when I read it in an anthology of horror fiction as a teenager in the 1970s. The combination of alien invasion and human madness felt like a cross between Ray Bradbury and Poe.)

The two carried on their correspondence into 1928, and then it petered out. Perhaps one or the other lost interest. Even so, it’s clear the Starrett continued to read Lovecraft’s stories.

Lovecraft died in 1937 at the age of 47, penniless and alone. While his work had gathered some fame among genre aficionados, it wasn’t until years later that his work was published in book form. Indeed, many of his short stories and other pieces were published by August Derleth under the Arkham House imprint. Holmes lovers will recall that Derleth was creator of the Solar Pons mysteries, one of the more successful Sherlockian clones.


Books and Bipeds was published in 1947 by Argus Books. Get it.

Starrett championed Lovecraft’s work (and the reprints by Derleth, a close Starrett acquaintance), calling Lovecraft “America’s premier fantasist in the field of the macabre.” Starrett’s comments came in a 1944 “Books Alive” column, reprinted in the essential volume Books and Bipeds (1947, New York: Argus Books).

“In his field he is important,” Starrett states. “He wrote himself— as Poe did— into many of his tales, describing himself carefully and accurately in the haggard, romantic portraits he drew of his central figures.”

Later scholars have criticized Starrett for generating the “Lovecraft Legend”— the belief that the author was a doomed character himself, whose early death was to be expected by one haunted by so many horrors. That’s easy to understand, since Starrett called him “one of the strangest figures in American literature.”

“(T)o me Lovecraft himself is even more interesting than his stories; he was his own most fantastic creation—a Roderick Usher or C. Auguste Dupin from a century too late. Like his heroes in Poe’s gigantic nightmares, he fancied himself as a cadaverous, mysterious figure of the night— a pallid scholarly necrologist— and cultivated a natural resemblance until it was almost the real thing.”

Lovecraft scholars S.T. Joshi and David E. Schultz, in the introduction to their pamphlet,  H.P. Lovecraft: Letters to Samuel Loveman & Vincent Starrett, aren’t sold on that view. “Debatable though it is, the statement served to foster the “Lovecraft legend” that captivated so many in the postwar years.” Others believe Starrett and Derleth fostered the “Lovecraft legend” to help sell the Arkham House books featuring Lovecraft’s letters and writings.

Whatever the case, Starrett clearly was affected by Lovecraft’s work and remained an advocate for him in much the same way he promoted Machen, Poe and Robert L. Stevenson.


There are a few other associations between Starrett and Lovecraft that bear noting.

Both men were influenced by the work of Robert W. Chambers. A popular romantic novelist from the turn of the last century, Chambers also published a dark fantasy called “The King in Yellow” in 1895. Lovecraft incorporated names and concepts from Chambers’ work into some of his later fiction, and Derleth brought the two works together in his Cthulhu tales.

Starrett wrote a fantastic poem dedicated to one of the characters in Chambers’ book. “Cordelia's Song” was first published in Weird Tales, and was reprinted many years later by Lin Carter in book, H.P. Lovecraft & Others: The Spawn of CthulhuI.

 

Cordelia's Song
From "The King in Yellow"
The moon shines whitely; I shall take
My silk umbrella, lest the moon
Too warmly fall upon the lake
And cause my bridal flowers to swoon.
The sparrow’s sorrow is in vain,
And so does he his bridge forget.
I wed the long grass and the rain,
And seven sailors dripping wet.
And shall not you and shall not I
Keep tryst beside this silent stream,
Who thought that we should rather die
Than wed the peacock’s amber dream?
 
The moon shines whitely; I shall take
My silk umbrella, lest the moon
Too coldly fall upon the lake
And chill my bridal flowers too soon.

 

A final thought: One of the most memorable Sherlockian pastiches ever penned is “A Study In Emerald” by Neil Gaiman. I won’t say any more in case you have not read it, which you should.

But not alone.

And certainly not on Halloween.