HP Lovecraft Biography Covers Through Time

Monday, January 3, 2011

The cover art that adorns H.P. Lovecraft's stories has generated many inspired galleries and forum threads across the internet, but one thing seriously lacking is a collection of Lovecraft biography covers. Art on Lovecraft's biographies may form new sets of beautiful pictures. But, surprisingly, the images can reveal a bit more - such as changing perceptions about Lovecraft over time, and in different contexts.

There are many factors that go into selecting cover art. Biography art, as on most books, is meant to catch the eye and (ideally) provide an accurate visual portrayal of the contents. Everything from budget to stylistic and marketing preferences by publishers, writers, and artists determines what the cover looks like. In Lovecraft's case, the results are equally diverse and interesting, as these select examples show.

Some of the earliest Lovecraft biographies adopted a bland, but very direct style for prospective readers. When books like L. Sprague de Camp's H.P. Lovecraft: A Biography and C.M. Eddy Jr's The Gentleman from Angell Street were published, Lovecraftian biographies were exceedingly rare. Although all competing Lovecraft biographies were widely overshadowed by S.T. Joshi's definitive H.P. Lovecraft: A Life in the late 1990s, online book shopping was still in its infancy by the time these titles were both on the scene. Both of these biographies utilize simple photos of their subject. Eddy's work hosts the ubiquitous Lovecraft portrait seen everywhere. The de Camp book's close-up, however, suggests an eerie angle - mirroring the author's focus on Lovecraft's eccentricity. It seems that Lovecraft's image was lodged very much between two poles - the boring, reclusive writer and the chilling freak, and it's little surprise his biographies at the time reflected this.

Moving on, HPL studies entered another artistic arena - one where stylized drawings stood in for real photographs. To me, the covers of S.T. Joshi's Lord of a Visible World and Willis Conover's Lovecraft at Last exemplify Lovecraft as legend. Both appeared in the early 2000s, and aside from A Life, they represented true efforts at presenting Lovecraft as authentically as possible, with generous quotations from his voluminous letters. There's certainly an effort to overcome past (and, at that time, enormously widespread) Lovecraftian myths, but Joshi, Conovers, and their publishers help bolster the Lovecraft as-larger-than-life image with their biographical cover art.

Whether it was intentional or not is irrelevant. These scholars were giving a wider readership than ever before its first inkling of Lovecraft's dead voice, and they wanted it to be heard at its loudest. It's entirely possible that Joshi and Conovers had little to no input in the cover art for these volumes. But the covers seemingly work toward the same ends as the authors, by giving H.P. Lovecraft stature as an epic authority worth listening to.

Finally, there's an interesting case study in S.T. Joshi's comprehensive and recently reissued biography, H.P. Lovecraft: A Life. The book has been re-released three times, and always with different cover art. Amusingly, the older editions are further reflections of prevailing trends in Lovecraftian book jackets.

The 1996 edition contains a scaled photo, which echoes the elder biographical cover style mentioned earlier. Similarly, the 2004 reprint shows a genteel author overlooking his imaginary creations. Lovecraft acts as a sort of god-king in this setting. By 2010, Joshi's gargantuan and expanded reprint, I am Providence: The Life and Times of H.P. Lovecraft, again uses photographs as covers - this time, full size portraits on both volumes of the set. Time will show whether or not studies of H.P. Lovecraft's life are again using the Lovecraft photograph as herald, or if a new trend has arrived. However, it pays to keep an eye on I am Providence, as its reign as the Lovecraft biography is expected to be a long one, and the art of this tome may actually function as a reflection of Lovecraft's popular image or as an aesthetic trend setter.

-Grim Blogger

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