Was Lovecraft the first fanfic author?

fanficHere’s a little perspective on all the marketing hype and debate surrounding Amazon’s Kindle Worlds fanfic platform: Some of the most significant and successful subgenres of recent decades have been evolved through a process close to fanfic, which to that extent is a latecomer to the game.

One standout example is the Cthulhu Mythos fictional universe, spawned by H. P. Lovecraft in the 1920s and breeding in dark and weird places ever since.

“In 1928, a young man, Conan creator Robert E. Howard, wrote a fan letter to Weird Tales magazine praising H. P. Lovecraft’s “The Call of Cthulhu,” which had recently appeared in the magazine’s pages. Howard described the story as “a masterpiece,” which he was “sure will live as one of the highest achievements in literature.” So writes Ross E. Lockhart in his introduction to the 2011 Night Shade Books anthology of Mythos stories he edited, “The Book of Cthulhu: Tales Inspired by H.P. Lovecraft.”

Howard went on to become a member of the ‘Lovecraft circle’ of writers, also including Clark Ashton Smith, Robert Bloch, Frank Belknap Long, Henry Kuttner, and Fritz Leiber, who corresponded, collaborated, and swapped and traded the names of invented deities, demons, and grimoires, creating the Cthulhu Mythos.

Lockhart describes the Cthulhu Mythos cycle as:fanfic

“interlinked tales of tentacles, madness, and terror created by Lovecraft, but expanded upon by his contemporaries and correspondents—the so-called ‘Lovecraft Circle.’ And the circle has gone on expanding ever since. The Cthulhu Mythos story cycle has taken on a convoluted, cyclopean life of its own, as further posthumous collaborations continue to expand the scope, scale, and ultimate interpretation of what is perhaps the most diverse shared fictional universe ever created.”

What’s more, Lovecraft himself used the same approach, inserting coinages and whole invented mythologies from living collaborators and dead exemplars into his canonical stories—Lord Dunsany’s Bethmoora, Robert W. Chambers’s Yellow Sign, Howard’s Unaussprechlichen Kulten. The process was consummated after Lovecraft’s death by his executor and publisher August Derleth, who either consecrated his legacy, or overlaid and distorted it, depending on your point of view.

So how does this differ from today’s fanfic?

fanficWell, for one thing, the Lovecraft Circle writers were authors: paid contributors who had to get past the editorial bar at Weird Tales or wherever. That speaks to the digital disruption of the boundary layer between professional writer and amateur hobbyist, and also to the primacy of distribution over content. The moment that amateur writers got a means to publish themselves, their status became equivalent at least potentially to professionals. Now it’s just a matter of degree.

So if every reader is now also potentially a writer, why and how would they want to write themselves into somebody else’s world? If you’re a fanfic reader looking for a fresh fix of your habit, is it just the long list of names you need to get you off? Or is it the same mood, spirit, ambience you want, which could be embodied in completely different trappings? Because if all these worlds are is a string of proper nouns and stock characters, then who even needs the fanfic authors, if a few algorithms could do the job just as well? Would readers care or even notice how good or bad the writing is, so long as the right trigger points are there? But they’re great as marketing franchises.

Fanfic commercialization may be the latest expression of the worst ills of genre writing, but it has one more new dimension to it. Lockhart explains:

“My personal discovery of the Cthulhu Mythos came in 1980, maybe early 1981. I received the Dungeons and Dragons cyclopedia, Deities and Demigods, which included a section … detailing the Cthulhu Mythos pantheon.”

Much modern fanfic is a by-blow of role-playing games, or other gaming franchises such as Warhammer and World of Warcraft. For the Cthulhu Mythos, it’s Call of Cthulhu, one of the most successful RPG franchises of all time. There, players and gamemasters have been spinning their own shared narratives for decades.

For any literary pundit looking for the Internet to foster a new tradition of communal collaborative storytelling like the ballads of old, well, it has already happened. Amazon, commercially savvy as always, is just the smartest platform to work out how to effectively monetize it.

7 Comments on Was Lovecraft the first fanfic author?

  1. Nope, far from it! Fanfic, or as it was called in those days, pastiche, has a long, long history. Earlier in the 20th century, French author Maurice Leblanc ticked off Conan Doyle by writing a badly mis-characterized Sherlock Holmes into his early Arsene Lupin stories, and subsequently changed the character’s name to “Herlock Sholmes” or “Holmlock Shears”.

    Another noteworthy example is “Edison’s Conquest of Mars,” which a hack pulp novelist banged out after learning H.G. Wells didn’t intend to write a sequel to “War of the Worlds”. In fact, Edison’s Conquest has pretty much everything you’d expect from a modern fanfic, including completely missing the point of the original work and using it as an excuse to have his favorite real-world heroes go kick some Martian ass.

    But google “pastiche” sometime and you’ll find some interesting things. In fact it was formerly quite common and not prosecuted as much (before the Berne Convention, when countries routinely disregarded other countries’ copyrights). Did you know California’s name came from a “fanfic”?

  2. What?! California’s name comes from a fanfic? That’s insane. I don’t know if you’d be up for rehashing an old-ish story and giving it your own spin, Chris, but I’m guessing there are very few people — outside of the serious fanfic community, at least — who are aware of that. I’d personally love to read more about it. Anyone else?

  3. Love the link, Chris! And what better name (and name origin) for a state that hosted such a fine lineage of fantastic fiction writers – Ambrose Bierce, Clark Ashton Smith, Fritz Leiber, etc.

  4. Fanfiction is even older than Sherlock Holmes. The earliest mention I’ve been able to find was 29 BC: the Aeneid. “The hero Aeneas was already known to Greco-Roman legend and myth, having been a character in the Iliad, composed in the 8th century BC. Virgil took the disconnected tales of Aeneas’ wanderings, his vague association with the foundation of Rome and a personage of no fixed characteristics other than a scrupulous piety, and fashioned this into a compelling founding myth or national epic that at once tied Rome to the legends of Troy, explained the Punic wars, glorified traditional Roman virtues and legitimized the Julio-Claudian dynasty as descendants of the founders, heroes and gods of Rome and Troy.”

    I think the quote is from somewhere on Wikipedia. I snagged it for a presentation on fanfiction I gave as a guest lecturer in a college level humanities class. (Anytime I can teach about fanfic to a bunch of college students is a good day 😉 )

    Also, in 1421 John Lydgate wrote the Siege of Thebes, which was presented as a continuation of the Canterbury Tales

    Fan fic has a long and noble history.

  5. The Lovecraft circle is more of a shared world situation than true fanfic. They took his world, built on it, and ran with it rather than staying close to the original.

    Also, their stories lacked Mary Sue and Marty Stu characters so they obviously aren’t fanfic. (evil grin)

  6. Okay you got me: I meant the title as a provocation, g’doh 😉 That said, I am still fascinated by what are we talking about here. What is going on with a fanfic writer’s creative process when they liberally salt their texts with handy buzzwords, totemic figures, and tropes from their source worlds? It’s so like the technobabble/Treknobabble, miltalk, crime lab jargon, and other newspeaks from all the genres. Are people’s imaginative responses really triggered by certain hooks and devices that have little or nothing to do with the actual story and plot? It almost tempts you to experiment to see how much of the real writing you could strip away and still satisfy the fanbase, so long as those stuffed dummies were still there flapping on their sticks – like a sort of more benign version of Orwell’s fiction machines.

  7. Dem’s fightin’ words, Paul!

    Honestly, the answer to your question of how much real writing you could strip away, is “an awful lot.” But only for certain segments of a fan base. There are a lot of fanfic readers who are picky and want good writing along with their tropes.

    In over-broad, general terms, the older the fan base, the better the writing. Fandoms that appeal to teenagers generally have worse writing and more trope-based stuff than fandoms with an older (25+) following.

    Mind you, that’s an over-generalization. There’s some excellent writing, for example, in the Harry Potter fandom. And there’s some amazing anime-based writers, even for shows that have very young fans (in English versions).

    For that reason, I tend to gravitate to the fandoms with older fans, although my most prolific writing was actually in anime, so even I don’t follow my own guidelines.

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