Review: The Spirit of Revision: Lovecraft’s Letters to Zealia Brown Reed Bishop (2015)

By Bobby Derie

Branney, Sean and Leman, Andrew (eds.). The Spirit of Revision: Lovecraft’s Letters to Zealia Brown Reed Bishop. The H.P. Lovecraft Historical Society (2015). Softcover: 190 pages. ISBN-13: 978-0-692-49524-7.

The name of H.P. Lovecraft is not normally associated with Oklahoma and Missouri, westward-bound pioneers and gold-seeking Spanish conquistadors, plantations with African slaves and lover’s triangles, the ancient precursors of Aztec gods and the legends of modern Native Americans … much less domestic stories with titles like “When a Woman is Tempted” and “Husband Pro Forma.” Yet, he worked on all these themes and more in his revision and ghost-writing work for Zealia Brown Reed Bishop, which resulted in the three Weird tales collected by Arkham House in The Curse of Yig (1953), and their exchange of letters lasted from 1927 until at least 1936.

For decades, the only remainders of this almost-a-decade’s worth of correspondence were 18 letters retained in the Arkham House Transcripts, 14 of which were published in abridged form in the Selected Letters, as well as one autograph letter from Bishop to Lovecraft held at the John Hay Library. Then, in 2014, a discovery — an old trunk discovered by Bishop’s great-grandnephew — and a large envelope containing 35 never-before-seen letters from Lovecraft to his pupil and revision-client.

During his lifetime, Lovecraft was as famed among his circle of correspondents for his letters as for his fiction, which ranged from postcards to mammoth hundred-page epistles, covering all manner of subjects and detailing Lovecraft’s life and philosophy, not just on writing and Weird fiction, but on all things, from Prohibition and politics to cats and his favorite variety of canned beans, and he wrote to everyone from Irish nationalists to young science fiction fans, not to mention fellow pulpsters like Clark Ashton Smith, Robert E. Howard, Fritz Leiber, and August Derleth. While perhaps only ten thousand of Lovecraft’s letters remain today, over two dozen volumes of his correspondence have been published, with more on the way.

The Spirit of Revision thus enters quite a crowded field, yet it remains unique: Nowhere else do we have such a collection of letters from Lovecraft in his professional mode, alternately businesslike and pedantic, though never less than polite and friendly. The volume contains the full text (or as much as remains) from all known letters in the Bishop-Lovecraft correspondence, including the previously unpublished ones in the Arkham House transcript; an annotation from S.T. Joshi highlighting the significance of this find to Lovecraft scholarship; a biography of Zealia Brown Reed Bishop; a timeline; a list of known stories; and a family tree. Annotations by Branney and Leman explain various names and points of interest in the letters — not as thoroughly, it must be admitted, as in the volumes from Hippocampus Press, but more than enough to clear up most issues.

The real highlight of the book, aside from the letters themselves, is the presentation. Most collections of Lovecraft’s letters are straight text, broken up only here or there by one of Lovecraft’s doodles or the odd photograph, but the H.P. Lovecraft Historical Society has profusely illustrated this volume, not just with scans of the actual manuscripts, but with the covers and selections of text from the books that Lovecraft recommends to his writing-pupil to improve her education, selections of period-appropriate postcards, and surviving photos of Bishop. Buyers who purchase directly from the HPLHS receive another treat: a facsimile reprint of a letter from Lovecraft to Bishop, featuring his own letterhead at 10 Barnes Street, tucked in among the pages.

Bio: Bobby Derie is the author of Sex and the Cthulhu Mythos (2014, Hippocampus Press) and The Complete Letters of Robert E. Howard – Index and Addenda (2015, Robert E. Howard Foundation). Trapped in a cubicle all day, by night he keeps busy with writing and research projects to keep from going insane.

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