Hammett: And Lovecraft

Whoa. Friday the 13th. Time to get a little eldritch and unspeakable for Biography Month. . . .

And unspeaking of H. P. Lovecraft, I admit I’m just as interested in the Could Have Beens of a writer’s life as the Plain Facts, and old HPL’s life is filled with more Could Have Beens than most.

One of the most fascinating is the idea that the publishers of Weird Tales, the major pulp magazine market for his tales of cosmic horror, thought about doing what would have been the first collection of his stories in 1927. The idea that the same thing almost happened to Hammett with the collection Including Murder apparently intended for release circa 1925 or 1926 from the publishers of Black Mask, his major magazine market — struck me as yet another parallel between the two pulpsters.

I refer to the proposed Lovecraft collection in the essay “Conan the Argonaut,” specifically in the selection which I put up on the anniversary of Lovecraft’s death this year. To recap fast, Lovecraft more or less “starved to death” — little money, a lousy diet, eventual disease and early death — even as the editor at Weird Tales, Farnsworth Wright, rejected one story now considered among his masterpieces, after another. Who knows if the book collection in 1927 would have changed the dynamic, allowed Lovecraft to eat better (years of poverty may have had him firmly in the grip of the dietary habits that led to his demise), break out, reach a wider audience? You can’t say for sure, but you can’t help but think, What If?

Maybe more and even hotter fiction from Lovecraft, over a longer life. . . .

I devoted a few years, off and on, to debating some of those possibilities in the letters column of The Cimmerian — if you’re interested in this sort of thing and ever get a chance to add those issues to your collection, grab them. One angle that keeps coming up is that Lovecraft was in effect the Hammett of Weird Tales, and Robert E. Howard was the Chandler. The first great figure in those pages, as Hammett was for Black Mask, and the hugely talented follow-up, as Chandler was for The Mask. The parallels aren’t precise — Lovecraft died in 1937 thinking he was a failure, while Hammett left Black Mask behind for hardcover publication by Knopf and serious Hollywood money. Lovecraft was handicapped by an editor, Wright, who repeatedly derailed him when he was about to get on a roll — while Hammett in 1926 got editor Joe Shaw, who encouraged him to write novel-length works and really let loose.

See where I’m going? Both writers have become classics, but Lovecraft died broke and Hammett realized success.

But the What If? that intrigues me now that I know about Including Murder is the idea that for Hammett, a collection from a pulp publisher at that date might have handicapped him, soured a major press like Knopf on the idea of picking him up later. Impossible to say, but among Could Have Beens I see a life where Hammett got Including Murder out, chosen from the best of his early Op stories, it didn’t do much, he still quit crime writing by 1926 — and Shaw never came in to lure him back.

Including Murder would have still been a hell of a collection. And so would that ghostly 1927 book by Lovecraft.

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