When I was eleven or twelve years old, I discovered H. P. Lovecraft in the Lockport Public Library, in upstate New York—the collection of Lovecraft stories was large and unwieldy with a distinctive font, which I can “see” vividly if I shut my eyes. The stories that riveted me immediately were “The Rats in the Walls” and “The Dunwich Horror.” At once I fell under the Lovecraftian spell—subsequently I have reprinted Lovecraft tales in anthologies of “literary” stories in the hope of breaking down the artificial barriers and unfortunate prejudices between genres.
—Joyce Carol Oates, Lovecraft Unbound
H. P. Lovecraft took time to find his place in the American canon. He died practically in poverty, his work published in pulp magazines, amateur journals, and fanzines. The few attempts at publishing his fiction in hardback were marred by failure. Literary recognition and mass popularity would not come for decades. It was a slow process, and many editors, scholars, fans, and writers helped along the way.
Joyce Carol Oates is the one who crowned him The King of the Weird in a review of S. T. Joshi’s 1996 biography H. P. Lovecraft: A Life.
As an editor, Oates has curated several works featuring Lovecrafts works: American Gothic Tales (1996), Tales of H. P. Lovecraft (1997), Telling Stories: An Anthology for Writers (1998), and The Oxford Book of American Short Stories 2nd Ed. (2013). These works are not exceptional from a strictly bibliographic point of view: there are no lost fragments published for the first time, no rarities reprinted after years or decades. What makes them special is the custody that Lovecraft keeps: Oates puts him on the page between Sherwood Anderson and William Faulkner, sharing space with Edith Wharton and Shirley Jackson. Oates put Lovecraft among the great voices of American fiction.
If there is a single gothic-grotestque writer of the American twentieth century to be compared with Poe, it is H. P. Lovecraft, born in 1890. […] Long a revered cult figure to admirers of “weird fiction” (Lovecraft’s own, somewhat deprecatory term for his art), Lovecraft is associated with crude, obsessive, rawly sensationalist and overwrought prose in the service of naming the unnameable. […] Lovecraft’s influence upon twentieth-century horror writers has been incalculable, and in certain quarters he is prized for the very traits (lurid excess, overstatement, fantastical and repetitive contrivance) for which, in more “literary” quarters, he is despised. The gothic imagination melds the sacred and the profane in startling and original ways, suggesting its close kinship with the religious imagination […] Lovecraft is a hybrid of the traditional gothic and “science fiction” but his temperament is clearly gothic. his “science” is never future-oriented but a mystic’s minute, compulsive scrutinizing of the inner self or soul.
—Joyce Carol Oates, American Gothic Fiction, 6-7
Her choice for the volume was “The Outsider”, which is closer to Poe than Ray Bradbury in the blend of gothic and science fiction. For Oates, Lovecraft is the transition point in the American Gothic, the fulcrum point at which she tips from “gothic” writers to “just writers” (ibid., 7). Weird fiction is where genres break down, but the gothic vision retains power and influence.
In 1997, Oates curated Tales of H. P. Lovecraft, selecting a collection from his major works and adding an introduction (a slightly edited version of her review of S. T. Joshi’s biography). Taking up her previous cue, Oates approach in the Lovecraft is to present Lovecraft as a writer of the American Gothic, fused with science fiction—but also focuses on his life, dreams (“night-gaunts”), use of setting (“like photographs just perceptibly blurred”), fascination with time, the few women in his stories, and the interconnections between his tales. Her brief survey is told in expressive language and with the occasional wry observation; for “The Dreams in the Witch House”:
Lovecraft seems to have taken for granted that Salem “witches” existed, not considering if perhaps they were simply victims of others’ malevolent misuse of power.
—Joyce Carol Oates, Tales of H. P. Lovecraft ix
Lovecraft wasn’t exactly forgotten in 1997; Ballantine, Carroll & Graf, Creation Press, and Dell were all bringing his work out in affordable trade paperback editions, and many of their books would go through multiple printings. What Oates brought to the table was herself: a respected literary writer who didn’t stoop to praise genre fiction, a person who could appreciate Lovecraft for his merits—and encourage readers to appreciate him too.
Telling Stories: An Anthology for Writers (1998) brought Lovecraft into the classroom; drawing on her seminars at Princeton, Oates presented the text and notes for dozens of influential stories, including H. P. Lovecraft’s “The Rats in the Walls.” If her previous efforts presented Lovecraft as a part of the American tradition, this was to make him part of the American syllabus. “Rats” would also feature in the second edition of The Oxford Book of American Short Stories (2013); Oates had edited the first edition of this work in 1992 without including Lovecraft, but she added him to the updated edition, with an abbreviated set of notes that observed:
In 2005 the Library of America issue H. P. Lovecraft, a selection of Lovecraft’s tales, giving the outcast writer, in effect, the imprimatur of American classic. By this time Lovecraft’s weird tales had found a wide and enthusiastic readership of a kind the luckless author could hardly have envisioned during his lifetime.
—Joyce Carol Oates, The Oxford Book of American Short Stories 2nd Ed. 297
Unlike Ellen Datlow, Paula Guran, Silvia Moreno-Garcia, & Paula R. Stiles, the importance of Joyce Carol Oates as an editor is not in publishing collections of Mythos stories or discovering new Mythos writers, but in helping to propagate Lovecraft outside weird fiction fandom—in her lifetime she had participated in the process that brought him into the greater awareness not only of literary academia but the general audience for American fiction.
Bobby Derie is the author of Weird Talers: Essays on Robert E. Howard & Others (2019) and Sex and the Cthulhu Mythos (2014).