Rediscovered: John D. Haefele’s “Why HPL?”

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On the occasion of HPL: Birthday 125, how about another origin story from yet another guy who traveled to PulpFest to honor H. P. Lovecraft?

In this instance we showcase how John D. Haefele first encountered the Old Gent from Providence, leading to a lifelong reading and collecting passion. You’ll note the ghostly presence of HPL in the backdrop of the cover for John’s major book on the origins of the Cthulhu Mythos, A Look Behind the Derleth Mythos — instant classic, not to be missed if you have even the slightest interest in Lovecraft.

And at this very moment John is plugging away on his next title, Lovecraft: The Great Tales.

Take it away, John:


Eleven years old, camping in the back yard, I listened raptly to my best friend’s amateur renditions of H. P. Lovecraft’s “The Lurking Fear” and “The Curse of Yig.” I was a fan of TV’s Twilight Zone (but frightened by Thriller). I had a closet stuffed with SF comic books.

But now I had to find the paperback editions of Cry Horror! and The Macabre Reader, to read those tales by Lovecraft — confident I’d find more. . . .

August Derleth of Arkham House had a knack for getting the books he published into the local library system. When a new branch opened near my Wisconsin home in late ’63, I searched the shelves for Lovecraft — and found Frank Belknap Long’s The Horror from the Hills. The small print on the very cool jacket tipped me to the publisher’s existence, and before long I received the 1964 Anniversary Stock List and related brochures.

For the next half-dozen years, August patiently answered the baker’s dozen juvenile queries I sent to the House, all about HPL, who was already my favorite author.

I discovered my other favorite author during college years. J. R. R. Tolkien was a fad in 1969, but he remains the only writer other than HPL to capture my life-long interest. (Robert E. Howard came close at the time and threatens yet to make three.) There were also a handful of mind-blowing nonfiction titles — for example, Alvin Toffler’s Future Shock. I plowed through that one faster than I did Frank Edwards’s Stranger Than Science, a decade earlier.

Then came Lovecraft’s Selected Letters. In the early volumes, HPL was a mechanistic materialist who understood better than the philosophers how the immense scale and complexity of the fixed universe would forever exclude humankind from unraveling its clockwork. This same immensity would also preclude the metaphysical — absolute reality, according to HPL, is forever out of reach. Practically speaking, it doesn’t exist at all.

HPL modified these early views in later letters, allowing for Probability, recognizing a blindly impersonal, rather than inimical, cosmos. Lovecraft’s view of time — that “galling” impersonal force — tied only too well to Toffler’s view. Literary scholars use “cosmic indifferentist” to label this unique worldview, which still fascinates me, even though in his correspondence HPL never satisfactorily answers the metaphysical conundrum posed by Olaf Stapledon’s unperceptive cat in old London, oblivious to the existence of finance or literature.

HPL does fantasize some possible answers in his fiction. That’s where I caught my first glimpses of the higher orders of being, their super-mundane purposes, and greater-than-three-dimension constructs. HPL’s fictional setting, the true background of the Cthulhu Mythos, is a multiverse: worlds within worlds, dreams within dreams, unfathomable depths of time, ocean, and earth.

In the fiction HPL’s indifferentism manifests itself as “cosmicism.” I feel the immensities of time and space, the loss of personal identity; I experience a thrill-ride that I’m compelled to repeat time and again, that I enjoy repeating.

I know that HPL had fun crafting this ride. It was sheer genius — mainly his — calculating that the process itself could abet the result. Fostering contemporary authors to write more stories, some directly related, others vaguely parallel. Alluding to past writers, to their concepts. No longer moored. The full meanings lost.

But HPL’s work comprising the center of this calculation — the Lovecraft Mythos — is a multiverse of its own, encompassing the tale within the tales of the Cthulhu Mythos.

No doubt about it. HPL — my literary friend — a writer for all ages — just happens to be endlessly fascinating.

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