Friday 15 December 2023

Review - L'Affaire Barlow

I expect most people are at least aware of some of the wrangles that occurred after the death of H. P. Lovecraft over who had control of his literary legacy, with August Derleth eventually emerging as the owner and controller of Lovecraft’s writings, in effect if not legally, despite Robert Barlow being named by Lovecraft himself as his literary executor.

Within days of Lovecraft's death a bitter feud emerged with amazingly vitriolic accusations against the then nineteen year old Barlow by Donald and Howard Wandrei, Samuel Loveman and others, including, somewhat less openly but no less antagonistically, Derleth himself, all of whom were determined to undermine not only Barlow’s credibility in that role but his honesty and integrity too.

L'Affaire Barlow by Marcos Legaria is a fascinating read into the shenanigans that went on in the immediate years after the great man's death, with a myriad of scurrilous accusations being propagated against Barlow, especially by the Wandreis, Loveman and Derleth. Indeed, the whole affair casts Derleth in a particularly poor light, even though I have always admired him as an editor (I used to love the regular anthologies that were reprinted in paperback in the UK in the 1960s) and as a writer too when he wasn't trying to mimic Lovecraft. But this book casts a dark shadow over him, though the darkest of all is on Donald Wandrei and his brother Howard, who were particularly harsh in their condemnations of Barlow and did not hesitate to exaggerate libelously against him. In a letter to Derleth on March 15th, 1963, a decade after Barlow's sad death by suicide, Wandrei had this to say: "Your quote about Barlow's diary serves to show what a ludicrous and infantile set of values and perspectives, or lack of them, typified both him and Beck - too bad Beck hasn't the sense to follow Barlow's example and erase himself from human existence, thereby improving the general atmosphere for the rest of mankind."

Distastefully reprehensible though comments like this are, Derleth appeared to play a more duplicitous role in the affair, letting others fire off accusations and even outright lies against Barlow, while pretending to be neutral to Barlow himself, even to the extent of pretending to be his friend, when he was anything but. In a letter to Wandrei on the 16th March, 1938 Derleth states: “In any case, you will remember that I maintained friendly relations with Barlow specifically for the sake of obtaining Lovecraft manuscripts, etc…. and this continued friendship paid off.” Years later Derleth was not ashamed to admit what he had done. In a letter to Wandrei dated 12th May, 1963:  “Oh, I’d never suspect you of duplicity – but me, ah, that’s another matter, in some things the ends justifies the means, esp. when nobody’s hurt – see how I took in Barlow, didn’t hurt him at all and kept him from blocking us on Lovecraft material – but I meant to publish HPL and even if I had let Barlow blow me to do it! Luckily, I didn’t…”

Perhaps worst of all was the rift that Donald Wandrei deliberately created between Barlow and his literary hero Clark Ashton Smith, some of whose poems he was about to publish in a small book. Lovecraftian scholar Dirk W. Mosig wrote: “I’ve long disliked Wandrei for the way in which he destroyed the friendship between CAS and Barlow, and cooled CAS’s regard for Claire Beck…Briefly, Wandrei wrote to Smith saying that Barlow, with Beck’s help, stole some HPL manuscripts from Mrs. Gamwell (Lovecraft’s aunt), and said in a way that was vicious. He was venting a personal anger then, too. He wanted to be the one to get the papers. Barlow, of course, was only accepting the offer of HPL’s Instructions in case of Decease, and Beck, who happened to be visiting Barlow, gave him a hand. But DW told Smith to watch out for those ghouls or they’d next be stealing from him. Barlow never found out why CAS had turned against him.”

Backed up by umpteen quotes from letters written by all the participants this is an important memoir of a time when Lovecraft's legacy lay in the balance. I would not be surprised if it also excites controversy and debate over the rights and wrongs exposed in it. Some of the ploys played against Barlow can, even now, raise the hackles and I must admit to feeling righteously aggrieved over the poisonous lies and allegations used by his enemies. Cancel culture is definitely not something new.

Well worth a read, but don’t expect to be unmoved.

L'Affaire Barlow is published by Bold Venture Press, 2023, 214 pages

Hardcover £25.57; paperback £13.57