In the Mountains of Madness: The Life and Extraordinary Afterlife of H.P. Lovecraft
By W. Scott Poole
Soft Skull Press / Counterpoint
Reviewed by Jason Pettus
As W. Scott Poole rightfully says in his new book, In the Mountains of Madness, despite how we long-time fans might still think of him, there is just no way anymore to describe Early Modernist horror writer HP Lovecraft as "obscure" or "unknown;" with his concepts popping up in things like Guillermo del Toro movies, top-40 music albums, and Stephen King novels, and his stories themselves now part of the Library of America and Penguin Classics collections, "Lovecraftian" horror has in fact become the most dominant form of this entire genre in the Millennial Age, much more than, say, the "Things That Go Bump In The Night" horror of his own time, or the "Ghosts in the Suburbs" trope that used to dominate horror during the Postmodernist era. And that's what makes Poole's book so intriguing, in that it's not just a traditional biography of Lovecraft himself (although it's that too), but perhaps the first-ever probing look at the fandom that has built up around Lovecraft over the years, one that started literally on the day of his death (the day August Derleth first mentioned the idea of opening Arkham House, the small press in the 1940s devoted to keeping Lovecraft's work in print), and a scholarly community that can get oddly protective and argumentative about the "proper" way to view this complicated man and the complicated work he left behind. (Indeed, Poole admits that several Lovecraftian scholars stopped corresponding with him when he admitted that he was planning in his book on taking a nakedly honest look at Lovecraft's notorious racism, an especially touchy subject now that writers of color are starting to win horror awards named after him.)
This is easily the biggest takeaway from this just-long-enough book, that how we currently perceive Lovecraft as a person has been largely influenced by the biases and personal opinions of previous biographers, and that a close, objective look at the historical documents left behind paints a slightly different picture than the one most of us carry around in our heads: Lovecraft was in fact not as anti-social as we've been led to believe over the years; he was not as hen-pecked by his mother and brief wife as the 100-percent male previous biographers of the sexism-friendly Modernist era have made him out to be; and although not exactly mainstream-popular during his lifetime, certainly he had the normal kinds of sales and influence as pretty much every other semi-amateur B-list genre writer of the 1920s and '30s who published mostly through the murky world of fanzines, and whose passionate audiences mostly kept in touch with each other through the "Letters to the Editor" pages of such zines. But on the other hand, Lovecraft was way more racist than previous biographers have given him credit, and it wasn't the kind of "everyone did it back then" racism because you can clearly see his more enlightened friends passionately arguing in their letters to him why he shouldn't be so racist (an attitude he seems to have picked up during his disastrous short stint in multicultural Brooklyn, the one and only time in his life that he didn't live in lily-white Providence, Rhode Island); and it also becomes clear through an unbiased look at his papers that he wasn't as dedicated to creating a unifying "Lovecraft Mythos" as later fans have attributed to him (the main culprit instead seems to be Derleth himself, who invented the idea of the "Mythos" simply to sell more books), and in fact Lovecraft actually had a kind of self-deprecating humor about the Great Old Ones he created for his stories, often calling himself "Grandpa Cthulhu" in his letters to his teenage fans.
All in all it's an eye-opening book, a great read not just for brand-new acolytes who are looking to learn basic information about Lovecraft for the first time (including a great reading plan in the back for tackling his stories in order of how influential they've been over the years), but also for long-time fans who think they know everything there is to know about this notoriously downbeat, misanthropic writer, and will be surprised to learn that he was actually a funnier and friendlier guy than they ever realized. It comes strongly recommended to such people; although as usual with biographies about specific individuals, it can be easily skipped if you have no interest in Lovecraft to begin with.
Out of 10: 8.9, or 9.5 for fans of HP Lovecraft