The good: Until S.T. Joshi's book, the only serious, widely-available biographical information on HPL apart from his letters was 'H.P. Lovecraft; A Biography' (1975) by L. Sprague de Camp, which left many gaps and open questions. Joshi's book fills in the gaps and then some. It is the closest thing we have to a definitive Lovecraft bio, and if you're a Lovecraft scholar of any seriousness, you'll eventually need to read it.
The not-so-good: While Joshi's book reads like a rigorously well-researched first draft, I wish he'd consulted a manuscript editor before publication. This massive, expensive and ponderous 708-page book could perhaps be edited into a more readable and reasonably-priced 300-page book, with another 100 pages of small print endnotes, merely by removing Joshi and his scholarship from the foreground and replacing them with Lovecraft. For example:
- Joshi includes himself in the story, using the first person pronoun on nearly every page. "I..." this and "I..." that. While Joshi is likely the world's foremost Lovecraft scholar, and I appreciate his excellent and exhaustive efforts as a researcher, I did not plunk down such a hefty cover price to read about his adventures in scholarship. Easily 200 pages of this 708 page book are about the adventures of Joshi, Lovecraft scholar. That information belongs either in a short appendix or separate article. He'll print a quotation and then add, "To this analysis there is really very little to add...," or "I don't think I can add much to this," or "That last remark may be a little sanguine, but let it pass," seemingly for no other purpose than to firmly return the spotlight, which had momentarily alighted on Lovecraft, to himself. On nearly every page I felt that trapped "captive audience" feeling you get with professors who use class time to speak at length about their personal lives. Surely by now it has become standard practice for biographers to not include the personal "I" in their biographies, at least when they've never met the subject.
- While most biographies focus on the subject and relegate sources and disputes to footnotes and endnotes, Joshi foregrounds the sources and points of contention, which has the odd effect of almost burying the subject. You'll often read four paragraphs of sources and conjecture containing a single sentence of actual biographical information. If Lovecraft did X, but there's some dispute, I'd prefer the main body to say "Lovecraft probably did X," with a small-print footnote citing sources and contentions. I paid to read about Lovecraft, not Lovecraft scholarship. I often feel like I'm being punished, forced to read 708 pages to get 300 pages of information.
- As another reviewer pointed out, Joshi frequently expresses his personal opinions in a tone suggesting that he believes them to be indisputable fact. Especially disconcerting is Joshi's careful habit of never missing an opportunity to denigrate Lovecraft himself. A tiny sampling of Joshi's descriptions of Lovecraft and his work includes: clownish error, clumsily, embarrassing, paranoia, pompous, pseudo-philosophical, trying to do too much, moping, overly given to histrionics, painfully inept, pitiable wish-fulfilment [sic], a pretty sorry excuse for a story, offensive, dubious and pathetic. It's almost as though, while Joshi must have some respect for Lovecraft, he is careful to constantly place himself "above" Lovecraft emotionally. I can sympathize with Joshi, who as a serious scholar must sometimes find himself exasperated by uninformed intellectuals who still underrate Lovecraft's genuine contribution. However, I feel that the body of a biography is not the best place for Joshi to distance himself from Lovecraft's sillier decisions. If Joshi dislikes something, surely he need not bolster his personal opinion by inflating it into a grandiose pretend-fact, pompously lecturing the reader as to what we ought to despise or where to place our "well-deserved contempt."
Why are Joshi's opinions in the book at all? Doesn't he trust his readers to form our own opinions? Almost once per page I felt some resentment at being forced to play captive audience to Joshi's unwelcome editorial opinions and emotional self-positioning in order to gain access to his excellent scholarship. Toward the end Joshi finally provides his editorial rationalization, introducing the topic by slamming previous Lovecraft biographer de Camp with: "[de Camp]'s schoolmasterly chiding of Lovecraft [is] ...galling." Talk about the pot calling the kettle black! Joshi goes on to claim that "passing value judgments... is the proper function of any biographer." Excuse me? As with all of Joshi's most dubious assumptions, he provides not a single citation or justification for this opinion, but merely states it as fact. Many (perhaps most) professional biographers would strongly disagree. I found myself bursting into incredulous laughter when Joshi finally declares, "...on occasion one feels as if Lovecraft is having some difficulty shutting up."
In closing, I hope this book is re-released soon with S.T. Joshi's presence as a character, editorial opinions, emotional self-positioning and research experiences either cut entirely or summarized in an appendix or endnotes. Then it wouldn't hurt to have a professional book doctor rewrite with an eye to smoother prose and readability. THAT edition will be the definitive Lovecraft biography.
ADDENDUM: One commentor to this post announced that a new 2-volume version will be published in 2010 by Hippocampus Press. If anyone from Hippocampus Press reads this, PLEASE do not compound the error already made by Necronomicon Press by republishing the hundreds of pages of material focused on Joshi at the expense of Lovecraft. Get this right and you might publish the definitive Lovecraft bio; repeat the error and your 2-volume edition will become an historical footnote the moment a serious biographer replaces it with a version that respects the reader.
ADDENDUM 2: Alas! The two-volume I Am Providence: The Life and Times of H. P. Lovecraft is even more focused on Joshi at the expense of Lovecraft than the single-volume edition.