Some Thoughts on Women Writers and Lovecraft

In Which I Ramble About Indirect Influences and the Pernicious Power of Sexism

The following isn’t going to be an academic article on the subject of How And Which Women Horror Writers Directly Influenced Lovecraft. I’m not literary critic enough or expert enough on Lovecraft to write that.

What this is, rather, is a semi-organized group of thoughts–can’t even call it an essay, to be honest–on a subject that hasn’t gotten a lot of coverage–or any, really, which is which women writers either directly or indirectly influenced or were an important part of the movements that influenced Lovecraft.

Why this subject hasn’t gotten a lot of coverage–well, we’ll get to that, but it boils down to critical sexist myopia on the part of the major Lovecraft scholars.

Lovecraft was a funny old bird. (And, yes, racist and sexist and all the rest–we’ll just accept those as givens for the sake of this blog post). A brief skim through his biographies (I’m making use of S.T. Joshi’s A Dreamer and a Visionary: H.P. Lovecraft in His Time [2001], although Joshi’s H.P. Lovecraft: A Life [1996] and I am Providence: The Life and Times of H.P. Lovecraft [2013] would probably do just as well) drives this point home hard. A loner for most of his childhood, an autodidact who spent a great amount of his childhood reading scientific books above his age level, and a boy who much preferred the company of adults to children his own age, Lovecraft’s difficult childhood environment (dominant, smothering, affectionless mother, absent and then dead father) and straitened circumstances (I don’t think he ever knew what it was to be financially secure and comfortable) pretty obviously exerted an enormous amount of psychological and emotional pressure on him. He had four mental/nervous breakdowns before he was fifteen and a serious “nervous collapse” in 1908, when he was eighteen, and it’s unclear whether he ever admitted to himself that his father’s death was from syphilis.

Reading and writing seem to have been the chief pleasures in his life. As we can see from the Chronological Bibliography of Lovecraft’s publications, he began writing at age seven and kept it up more or less continuously through his life. As someone who thought deeply about writing, he was always open–apparently–about the sources of his stories and the influences on them.

The writers who are generally accepted to have been the biggest influences on Lovecraft’s writing, based on his own statements, were men: Edgar Allan Poe, Lord Dunsany, Arthur Machen, and Algernon Blackwood. And Lovecraft’s Supernatural Horror in Literature certainly shows Lovecraft to have been well-read in horror, though some and perhaps many of those writers Lovecraft only read as an adult, and various arguments have been advanced about which writers in Supernatural Horror in Literature were influential on Lovecraft.

(As an aside: Lovecraft’s style evolved as he grew older, so the question of who influenced him applies not just to his childhood and teenaged reading but to the reading he did as an adult).

A lot of critical work–a lot of critical work–has been written about the influence of these various authors on Lovecraft’s fiction and poetry. But there’s a curious–or perhaps not so curious–absence, in Lovecraft’s letters, in Supernatural Horror in Literature, and in the secondary, critical work of people like Joshi and Robert H. Waugh in Lovecraft and Influence: His Predecessors and Successors (2013). Largely missing from these biographies and critical works are women–by which I mean women writers of horror.

(Lovecraft’s personal attitude toward women, as expressed in his stories…well, I’ll let Gina Wisker, from New Critical Essays on H.P. Lovecraft, say it:

Despite interest in H. P. Lovecraft’s own relationships with women, his controlling aunts, and his limited marriage, his female characters are rarely explored critically, possibly because they are so few. However, with the depiction of Lavinia Whately, Marceline, Keziah Mason, and other deadly, deranged, dangerous creatures, his work replays various constructions of the monstrous feminine as critically explored by Julia Kristeva, Luce Irigaray, Hélène Cixous, and Barbara Creed, among others. In Lovecraft’s work, there is a fascination with women as the source of disruption and disorder. There are rare examples of the femme fatale figure common in fin-de-siècle art and literature (“Medusa’s Coil”), and frequent treatments of the witch or haglike woman (“Dreams in the Witch-House”). However, Lovecraft’s unique contribution to the depiction of women who elicit terror and disgust is through the figure of those who are culpable of miscegenation, interbreeding with the alien Other, creatures from the seas, from Hell, from other dimensions, and, controversially for contemporary readers, in Lovecraft’s view, the “racially inferior” (Lord, 2004 20). Lord suggests that Lovecraft’s racism is “blunt, ugly, and unavoidable” (Lord, 2004 20) but that the main focus of this fear and distaste is the women, the source of whatever is being bred.)

Women writers of horror should be mentioned in these biographies and critical works. Not because it’s compulsory—though it should be, it’s critically significant if a male writer has no female influences—but because it defies reason that Lovecraft didn’t read them.

Joshi’s first admitted exposure to horror fiction was at age eight (in 1898), when he first encountered the work of Edgar Allan Poe. The subsequent narrative of the writers who influenced him, at least as peddled by S.T. Joshi and his claque, is that Lovecraft stuck to male writers, the Machen Quartet (Machen, Dunsany, Blackwood, and M.R. James) foremost among them.

But someone as interested in—as fascinated by—horror as Lovecraft surely did not limit himself to works by the Machen Quartet, or the Gothics (in which he read widely), or the major male horror writers of the nineteenth and early twentieth century as a child or teenager, or even those and other male horror writers through the rest of his life. Lovecraft would have read female horror writers. In truth, there’s no way he could have avoided them.

Horror fiction in America in the nineteenth century was largely the province of women. As scholar and writer Jessica Amanda Salmonson has pointed out, as much as seventy percent of the horror fiction published in the nineteenth century was written by women. Before the 1890s arrival of the Machen Quartet, the biggest names in American horror fiction were women–and (and this deserves emphasis) the biggest names in regional horror of New England were women. Lovecraft was a creature of New England for nearly all of his life, and it would have been impossible for him to have escaped reading women’s horror fiction if he did any reading outside of the cheaper pulps and dime novels–if he read newspapers or the major mainstream periodicals or the major pulps, he would have encountered women’s horror fiction.  As omnivorous a reader of horror as Lovecraft was, it’s very difficult to believe he didn’t consume, say, Argosy or Saturday Evening Post or Cosmopolitan (a major source of fiction, Way Back When–first to serialize Wells’ War of the Worlds and The First Men in the Moon) or the other venues which published women’s horror fiction. Women’s horror fiction was everywhere during Lovecraft’s childhood and teenage years—the Machen Quartet were among the best and most influential male writers of horror fiction during the 1890s, 1900s, and 1910s, but their popularity didn’t mean that women stopped writing horror fiction or stopped having their horror fiction published  in prominent periodicals, in collections, and in novels. He couldn’t have avoided seeing women’s horror fiction, and I think he wouldn’t have wanted to avoid reading it.

After all, in Supernatural Horror in Literature Lovecraft writes about the Gothics of the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries—many written by women—and singles out some female horror writers, particularly Ann Radcliffe. Mary Shelley, too, (somewhat surprisingly) Emily Brontë, (very surprisingly) Mary E. Wilkins Freeman, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Clemence Housman, and May Sinclair.

Too, in his personal library Lovecraft had horror novels and horror stories written by women. We know what was in Lovecraft’s personal library circa 1932.

(There’s actually a book, twice updated, titled Lovecraft’s Library, which apparently covers all the books Lovecraft mentioned in his letters as well as those known to have been in his personal collection when he died. But I don’t own Lovecraft’s Letters and I’m certainly not going to buy it solely for this blog post. So there may be more horror works by women writers that I don’t know about. But the 1932 personal library is a good starting place).

Among the novels we find:

  • Mary Bligh-Bond’s Avernus
  • Esther Forbes’ A Mirror for Witches
  • Signe Toksvig’s The Last Devil

Among the magazines we find a complete run, as of 1932, of Weird Tales, which published well over one hundred women writers, including, most notably, Allison V. Harding, Mary Counselman, and Margaret St. Clair.

And then there are the anthologies:

  • Masterpieces of Mystery. A four-volume set, but Lovecraft only had three volumes, one of which was undoubtedly volume three, “Ghost Stories.” Katherine Rickford is in there, for “Joseph: A Story” (1920).
  • The Best Psychic Stories, which also has Rickford’s “Joseph” as well as Elsa Barker’s “The Sylph and the Father” (1920).
  • The Not at Night Series: Not at Night, which has Greye La Spina’s “The Tortoise-Shell Cat.”
  • You’ll Need a Night Light, which has Zita Inez Ponder’s “His Wife” (1927), and Christine Campbell Thompson’s “Out of the Earth;” Gruesome Cargoes, which has Thompson’s “When Hell Laughed,” and Dora Christie-Murray’s “Drums of Fear” (1926); By Daylight Only, which has Thompson’s “At Number Eleven,” Signe Toskvig’s “The Devil’s Martyr” (1928); and Switch on the Light, which has Thompson’s “The Red Turret.”
  • Beware After Dark, which has Cynthia Stockley’s “The Mollmeit of the Mountain” (1913), Ellen Glasgow’s “The Shadowy Third” (1916), and Gertrude Atherton’s “The Striding Place” (1896).
  • The Omnibus of Crime, which has Margaret Oliphant’s “The Open Door” (1882), Marjorie Bowen’s “The Avenging of Ann Leete” (1923), and May Sinclair’s “Where Their Fire Is Not Quenched” (1922).

Most of these works are sufficiently different in style and substance from what Lovecraft wrote that no argument can be made of their influence. Most–but not all:

Bligh-Bond’s Avernus is a fantasy novel about reincarnation romance that includes the psychic experiences of other species. Now, I haven’t read Avernus—I’m relying on secondary critical works for information about the novel—but that summary puts me in mind of Lovecraft’s “The Shadow out of Time.” And since Avernus was published in 1924 and “Shadow out of Time” was written in 1934, there’s no chronological problem with the former influencing the latter.

Forbes’ A Mirror for Witches is a historical fantasy set in 17th century New England during the Salem Witch trials, and is about a girl who confesses to being a witch, because she believes she is one. I haven’t read A Mirror for Witches—no time—but the reviews praise the novel’s quality and evocation of the “eerie atmosphere of New England’s dark past,” and makes me think of Lovecraft’s “The Dreams in the Witch House.” Again, there’s no chronological difficulties in Forbes having influenced Lovecraft—A Mirror for Witches was published in 1928 and “Witch House” was written in 1932.

More interestingly, there are authors and works who we can be relatively sure of having an influence on Lovecraft but who are nowhere represented in his library or in his biographies or critical works about him. Two in particular are worth noting:

Sarah Orne Jewett. Now known mostly to Victorianists and scholars of women’s writing, Jewett was once a giant of American letters, heavily influential on a generations of New England writers and praised by the likes of Rudyard Kipling and M.R. James.

Jewett would seem to be an odd choice for writers that Lovecraft might have been influenced by—except that Jewett, who wrote what is now called “regional fiction” about Maine, was the foremost promulgator of the fictional New England town phenomenon—that is, writers making up a fictional New England town or city, like Lovecraft’s Arkham and Innsmouth and Dunwich, as the site for their stories. Sarah Orne Jewett didn’t invent this, but in Lovecraft’s childhood and teens Jewett was the major practitioner of a story-cycle set around a fictional New England locale, in Jewett’s case Deephaven and then Dunnet’s Landing. As Jessica Amanda Salmonson wrote,

Dunnet Landing is the most famous non-existent town of Maine & reminds us of Lovecraft’s Dunwich, Massachusetts. The influence of regional fiction from the nineteenth century on American horror writers has long been underestimated, though many of the ghost stories of August Derleth are frank imitations of Mary E. Wilkins Freeman & Sarah Jewett. The idea of a totally invented town was well established among the New England regionalists, & it is safe to say there never would have been a Dunwich or an Arkham had there never been a Deephaven or a Dunnet Landing…

 Vernon Lee. One of the best writers of the supernatural of her time, Lee was also a noted writer on art and aesthetics.

Lee, like Jewett, is not the first writer that people would choose for Lovecraft to have been influenced by. She’s far more of a writer of psychological hauntings and psychological horrors than Lovecraft was. And as Anthony Camara writes, “Whereas the weird horror of Lovecraft and the ‘Modern Masters’ revolves around the destabilization of matter, nature, and the cosmos, and is thus intrinsically ontological and/or metaphysical, Lee’s fiction does not show the slightest interest in destabilizing physical reality.”

But Lee was in fact influential on Lovecraft in two ways. It must be remembered that Lee was a significant writer of supernatural weird horror during the 1880s, 1890s, and 1900; Lovecraft, so eager to read horror fiction, must have heard of her, and undoubtedly would have read some of her work. (Absence of evidence—that is, none of Lee’s collections being in Lovecraft’s library, and none of Lee’s stories being in any of the anthologies in Lovecraft’s library—is not evidence of absence).

The first influence is in the psychological effects of horror on Lovecraft’s protagonists. They are generally high-strung, not particularly stable to begin with and rendered unstable because of brushing up against the unnameable and indescribable, and in general the opposite of the rugged, hyper-masculine, implacable and unmoveable male characters of most adventure fiction of the time. Lee’s horror stories, like Lovecraft, emphasize the baleful effect of the weird—the formless supernatural in Lee’s case, the alien space-gods and their spawn in Lovecraft’s. This emphasis on the psychological effects of horror on protagonists was a common enough authorial trick, but Lee’s prominence among writers of the weird and horrible would have meant that it would have impressed itself on him as an authorial trick to emulate, or at the very least as a modern version of the hysteria-causing horrors of Poe’s fiction.

The second influence, the broader and deeper one, lies in the combination of Lee’s materialism—because for her the weird can be reduced to scientific principles and facts—and her conception of (in Camara’s words) “human subjectivity and the forces that haunt it as explicable by the mechanisms of heredity.” These were significant departures from the prevailing horror and weird fiction dynamics of the time—but are themes that repeatedly appear in Lovecraft’s work. Moreover, Lee’s emphasis on the primacy of human psychology as the ultimate source of “supernatural” and psychic horrors, being so different from Lovecraft’s work and from the work of the Machen Quartet, can be argued to have been influential on Lovecraft as themes to be avoided. Again, Lee was a major weird and horror author of the time. Lovecraft would have read her and—thoughtful about writers as he was—would have taken note of her aesthetics and thematics, and would have struck out in the opposite direction, away from her and towards the Machen Quartet. Not every influence is going to be a positive one.

That’s four women authors of horror fiction who may—in my view, who did—influence Lovecraft. My position is arguable—but no less plausible, I think, than the many other arguments critics and scholars put forth about the various male writers who supposedly influenced Lovecraft.

So why hasn’t anything been written about these women writers or other significant women writers of horror of the time influencing Lovecraft’s writing?

One reason, of course, is the absence of their names from Lovecraft’s letters and Supernatural Horror in Literature and the absence of their works from Lovecraft’s library. But as only a moment’s consideration shows, this doesn’t mean he didn’t read them—again, absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. Why didn’t Lovecraft write about women writers he had read or was reading?

Well, read that Gina Wisker quote again about women in Lovecraft’s writing. It’s sometimes risky to extrapolate what a writer actually believes from that writer’s fiction, but in this case Lovecraft’s fiction seems to have accurately reflected Lovecraft’s beliefs, at least as far as women are concerned. Lovecraft didn’t have many female friends, as a child, teenager, or adult. His was a largely homosocial world. But despite his revulsion at the mechanics of sex with women and his nearly entirely male circle of friends, he wasn’t gay—if anything, he was asexual.

Which would be irrelevant to this discussion—plenty of aces are friends with and love women and even have sex with women—except I’d argue that Lovecraft, vain as he was, took his antipathy toward the physical act of sex and toward romance with women and not only projected them into his fiction, but allowed it to fuel a kind of embarrassment at the very idea of being influenced by women. Misogyny has many manifestations, after all, and it’s quite possible that Lovecraft’s misogyny was the type that saw viewed men who allowed themselves to be influenced by women as lesser men or lesser beings. This particular variety of misogyny would have manifested itself in silence when it came to women’s horror writing that influenced him—he may have been influenced by this female writer or that female writer, but he would never admit that influence to himself, much less to other men.

Armchair psychologizing? Perhaps—but so much that is written about Lovecraft is also armchair psychology.

The larger reason that no one’s written about women horror writers influencing Lovecraft—well, I’ll let Jessica Amanda Salmonson say it, and depressingly and angrily note that she wrote this thirty years ago and nothing’s changed:

Women have been overlooked by many means, so that if you set out to find tales of strangeness & terror by women, you would have a difficult time of it. This is no place for a synopsis of Joanna Russ’s brilliant How to Suppress Women’s Writing (1983), but the fate of women’s supernatural & horrific writings could have provided textbook cases for all her points. Mention Mary Higgens Clark or V. C. Andrews & be told, “Yes, but their gothicisms are not ultimately supernatural, so they don’t count.” Mention women’s dominance in Victorian ghost stories (Riddell, Molesworth, Oliphant, Broughton, Wood, ad infinitum, not to mention the neglected American portion) & be told, “Yes, but those are not always horrific in intent, & that’s a long time ago, so it doesn’t count.” Mention the horrorific fiction of Ruth Rendall & Patricia Highsmith, it’s “But only a little of their output is supernatural & they’re really closer to mysteries.” Mention Chelsea Quinn Yarbro’s vampire tales & be told, “Yes, but these are more romance than horror; they don’t count.” Mention Russ or Tiptree or Charnas & a dozen other moderns who’ve written first-rate horror, & it’s: “They’re better known for their science fiction, so we can’t count them.” Mention Kathryn Ptacek & it’s, “But she was helped by a husband, Charles Grant, the real star of the family” (as there was only one Browning?). How about Shirley Jackson, the real beginning of the modern horror genre without whom Stephen King would have found no road paved for his success. According to the naysayers, “She was an anomaly & anyway she didn’t produce that much overall.”

As a general rule critics and historians of horror fiction have slighted women’s contribution to the genre, and the major recent histories of horror literature have not improved matters. Joshi & Stefan Dziemianowicz’s Supernatural Literature of the World (2005), Joshi’s Unutterable Horror: A History of Supernatural Fiction (2014), Xavier Aldana Reyes’ Horror: A Literary History (2016), Matt Cardin’s Horror Literature Through History (2017), Kevin Corstorphine & Laura Kremmel’s Palgrave Handbook to Horror Literature (2018)—certain women writers are described or mentioned or referred to in these works (because they are too famous and influential to omit), but the great mass of second-rankers, and even the majority of the first-raters, who happen to be women simply don’t appear in them, or (in the case of Joshi) are slighted by the writers, who apply ludicrously uneven standards to them and seem wholly unaware of their own misogyny and sexism.

(At the risk of being self-congratulatory and self-serving: my two books on horror fiction, Horror Needs No Passport, a guide to international [non-US, non-UK] horror fiction of the 20th century, and my A Chilling Age of Horror [due out out next year from Praeger], about 20th century horror fiction, were written with this gender gap in mind—I tried my best to rectify it).

As long as men are writing the histories of horror fiction and writing about the influences on Lovecraft, this state of affairs won’t change. In the past twenty years we’ve had feminist and queer studies readings of Lovecraft’s work, but more is needed, about Lovecraft’s background, about the major female horror writers of Lovecraft’s childhood and teenaged years, and about Lovecraft’s fiction.

This entry was posted in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *