Monday, August 13, 2012

A Haunted Mind

A couple of days ago, I received in the mail a copy of Dr. Bob Curran's new book: A Haunted Mind, which is a study of the life and work of H.P. Lovecraft - with most of the book devoted to addressing the very intriguing theory that much of the man's fictional work was possibly based on his secret knowledge of all-too-real things monstrous, malignant, ancient and other-worldly.

I'm about 50-pages into the book and it's excellent reading. If you're already a fan of Lovecraft's work, are intrigued by the possibility that there might be actual truths behind the fiction, or are new to the man and his writings, Bob's book is one I definitely recommend!

I'll be doing a full review of A Haunted Mind right here once I have finished reading it.

PS: On a very refreshing note, Bob does not present Lovecraft as some untouchable god-like writer who is to be revered and praised on bended knee at all times. No. Instead, Bob shows the man as he was: deeply weird, massively flawed, odd, eccentric, racist, asexual, not at all likable, socially-challenged, and someone with an overwhelming and ridiculous sense (an incorrect sense, of course) of his own superiority and importance over others. Yes, Lovecraft was a tremendously gifted writer. But as a man? Well, put it this way: be content to remember him as a great writer and nothing else...


  1. I'd be wary of taking too much in Bob Curran's book at face value regarding what you refer to as the 'deeply weird' nature of Lovecraft's character, as his claims in this regard are not supported by reference to documentary evidence. As I'm sure you're aware, the book contains no formal referencing or bibliography, which in effect means readers have to take Bob Curran at his word on this matter. In other words, what Curran is effectively doing is presenting unsupported opinion in the book. Whilst there is nothing wrong with that, far more rigorous academic research has been undertaken by other scholars of Lovecraft's life and work (the foremost being S.T. Joshi) which draw on a significant body of documentary evidence (including the correspondence and accounts of Lovecraft's many acquaintances) to demonstrate that Lovecraft was quite different as a person to the unlikable, 'deeply weird' and almost sociopathic creature seemingly described in 'A Haunted Mind'.

    This is not a matter of Lovecraft fanboys uncritically lionising their hero: the work of Joshi and others are certainly cognisant of Lovecraft's deep-seated racism and the fact that, like the best of us, he had a number of flaws. But where Joshi takes pains to support his claims by extensive referencing of documentary evidence, Curran does not. In respect of this, it's definitely worth getting another opinion on the matter from outside the pages of 'A Haunted Mind'.

    As to the notion that Lovecraft had inside occult knowledge, his own letters constantly and consistently reiterate the fact that from a very early age he subscribed strongly to atheistic and materialist views (which, indeed, are at the philosophical heart of the 'Cthulhu Mythos'), and thus did not admit to the existence of the supernatural in his worldview.

    There's a much better overview of some of the problematic aspects of Bob Curran's book than I'm able to provide here:

  2. Well said.Lovecraft was a genius in regards to his writing but any other 'caims' should surely be backed up otherwise we are getting into seriously murky water. I'm unsure why anyone would think there is a truth behind his tales, which clearly are a mix of folklore and bizarre, albeit genial rambling. These are the things I want to read about, and not personal claims which are unfounded.

  3. Justin
    Yes, I agree: the lack of any sort of reference/sources/bibliography is not just unfortunate. It's inexcusable. Particularly in a book that runs for 350 pages. So, when Curran refers to Lovecraft's racism, and offers no reference to which the reader can further refer and see where Curran got his data, this is indeed inexcusable. But, it still happens to be the case that Lovecraft WAS racist. Curran's major flaw in his book is not that some of the material on Lovecraft CANNOT be sourced, but that he seemingly chose not to source it. I'll be addressing all this in my review.

    1. Nick,

      Absolutely - Lovecraft's racism needs to be addressed, and indeed this is something which I raised in my intial comment. Quite rightly Bob Curran also speaks to this point, and it isn't something that fans of Lovecraft should either ignore or find excusable. This is certainly a compelling reason for me to find Lovecraft unikeable!

      But the problem remains that just because some of what Bob Curran says is true doesn't make it all true, and my (admittedly anecdotal) sense from looking at the reviews appearing on paranormalist blogs and websites is that Curran's book is being treated in a rather uncritical light, especially with regard to the lack of sourcing.

      The wider issue is that, outside of Lovecraft's racism, Curran seems to present what is effectively opinion about Lovecraft's life, character and inspirations (especially with regard to 'genuine' sources of the Cthulhu mythos) as fact (or at least as possibility), when the extant documentation doesn't appear to support said opinions. In the above you mention that 'Curran's major flaw is not that some of the material cannot be sourced, but that he seemingly chose not to souce it'. To my mind, the operative word here being 'some', inferring that other material in the book cannot, indeed, be sourced.

      This lack of sourcing also potentially obscures the basis of Curran's seeming erudition regarding the Cthulhu Mythos, which reflects the contents of the earlier work of Dan Harms and John Gonce (particularly Harms' 'The Cthulhu Mythos Encyclopedia' and Harms & Gonce's 'The Necronomicon Files'). Nothing wrong with this, but proper referencing and having a bibliography helps readers to judge how such sources are being used in a particular context.

      Again, my intention is not to act as an apologist for Lovecraft's racism in terms of Curran's assessment of HPL's character; but 'A Haunted Mind' does, I think, fail to address the complexity of Lovecraft's work, life and personality in favour of sensationalism which, intentionally or not, seems to rhetorically perpetrate the myth that Lovecraft was some sort of freakish sociopath who had access to sources of occult truth (wether folkoric or otherwise).

      You are right to suggest that Lovecraft drew (much more minimally, I would argue, than Curran suggests) on folkloric sources, but his knowledge of occultism and esotiericism doesn't appear to be that extensive (he had read Fort, and was aware of Crowley and Theosophy, but does not seem to have been cognisant of Crowley's magical philosophy, and whether he had actually read any of Blavatsky's work remains, as I understand, it a contentious point).

      However, through the rhetorical device of repeatedly asking us to consider the possibility that what Lovecraft was writing about was real, the book is not simply pushing the claim that Lovecraft may have incorporated aspects of esotericism and folkore into his writing, but that his Cthulhu mythos represented a genuine reality.

    2. Hey Justin

      I can say for sure that even if others have treated the lack of Sources/Bibliographay lightly, I wont. For such a lengthy book (small typeface, 350 pages, extensive word-count) the lack of a Bibliography is a major, major oversight, which I will be addressing in my review.

      My "some" reference was not meant as one of any significance. As far as I can tell, Curran has not addressed ANY issues re Lovecraft's character that have not appeared elsewhere. But, again, the lack of info re where Curran's data comes from is the critical point.

      As far as the main thrust of the book is concerned (the idea that Lovecraft was writing about realities in the form of fiction), you say:

      "However, through the rhetorical device of repeatedly asking us to consider the possibility that what Lovecraft was writing about was real, the book is not simply pushing the claim that Lovecraft may have incorporated aspects of esotericism and folkore into his writing, but that his Cthulhu mythos represented a genuine reality."

      I think a full reading of the book is required to comment on this aspect, as I have clearly seen comments at other blogs where people have misinterpreted what Curran's book is and what the author is saying.

      As I said in my reply to Neil Arnold's comment, Curran is NOT saying that Lovecraft - himself - possessed ancient, archaic, secret knowledge of terrible, monstrous (etc etc) things that Lovecraft knew to be real and that he incorporated into his stories.

      What Curran does is to look at Lovecraft's inspirations (as I mentioned to Neil, he was fully aware of Blavatsky's writings on Atlantis etc, and also The Wendigo story etc), and then see if the inspirations had a basis in reality.

      So, Curran - as i see it from reading the book - is not asking us to believe that Lovecraft personally possessed any data, secret lore etc that was relevant to the real world. But, rather, that the books, short stories, folklore, real ancient books etc he may have read (or been aware of) did, themselves, contain ancient secrets.

      If Curran was saying - as I mentioned to Neil - that Lovecraft possessed some appropriately Lovecraftian ancient library filled with texts on terrible, ancient things, that would be one thing. But, Curran isn't. He's asking if the things which inspired Lovecraft and from where he drew his ideas, if they contained ancient realities.

      A classic example is Cthulhu. Curran has a whole section on this, unsurprisingly of course! But he doesn't suggest that Lovecraft new secrets of a real Cthulhu.

      Instead, he digs into tales of creatures from mythology and legend as the Kraken, the Hydra etc, and then asks if that mythology has a basis in reality (allegedly real sightings of sea-serpents etc), and may have inspired Lovecraft to create his fictional monsters.

      In other words, it could be argued from reading Curran's book that, yes, Lovecraft did write about realities - but realities described in other books, texts or distorted by folklore and then fictionalised by Lovecraft. But, definitely NOT because he - Lovecraft - had stumbled upon a vast collection of mythos material that he himself secretly possessed or knew about and wrote about.

    3. When you're claiming that someone was a pedophile and stalker, as Bob Curran does, not providing sources isn't just a matter of poor writing style.

  4. Neil:

    You say: "I'm unsure why anyone would think there is a truth behind his tales, which clearly are a mix of folklore and bizarre, albeit genial rambling."

    You're correct re the folklore angle. As a perfect example, the back-cover of Curran's very own book states that in trying to solve the issue of whether Lovecraft had access to any ancient real secrets that were subsequently semi-fictionalized, Curran uses "both folklore and history."

    I should stress this book is not - AT ALL - about Lovecraft possessing some vast, terrible library containing all sorts of ancient texts etc.

    Rather, it's whether Lovecraft took inspiration from folkloric tales that may themselves have been based on secret knowledge.

    Lovecraft personally possessing ancient secrets, vs ancient folklore that Lovecraft was acquainted with and that might have contained ancient secrets, are very different matters.

    For example, Lovecraft was renowned for his stories of ancient and mighty civilizations. Curran notes that Lovecraft was acquainted with the Atlantis/Book of Dzyan claims of Blavatsky.

    So, if Lovecraft was acquainted with such matters, and then incorporated some of this into his novels in fictionalised form regarding ancient people and mighty and long gone civilisations, then followers and suppporters of Blavatsky would say Lovecraft's stories WERE based on ancient truths.

    See what I mean? The book is NOT about Lovecraft possessing ancient secrets. It's about whether the things that he wrote about were inspired by things in the public domain that some might believe WERE real - the Blavatsky issue being a case in point.

    As a second example, Curran talks about Lovecraft's writings and the Wendigo. But, Curran makes it clear that Lovecraft's knowledge on the Wendigo came from Algernon Blackwood's 1927 story, The Wendigo.

    But, does that mean there aren't real, terrible truths about a real Wendigo? See what I mean?

    These are the central themes of Currans's book: addressing where Lovecraft got his data, determining what he created vs what he borrowed, copied or was inspired by - and then asking if THAT material possessed ancient secrets, NOT that Lovecraft himself was hiding such secrets in some typically Lovecraftian ancient library etc.