My Patreon patron John Millar asks: “Did HPL read the work of the American science-fiction writer E.E. “Doc” Smith? Did he offer an opinion about it?”
Born in 1890, the early science-fiction pulp writer E.E. “Doc” Smith was the same age as Lovecraft. Like Lovecraft he was also a doughnut enthusiast. But in Smith’s case, he didn’t just dunk the ‘nuts in his four-sugar coffee. He made a career out of the food science of making doughnuts. On the side he also wrote implausible super-science ‘space operas’, complete with immense and ever-expanding spaceships. Tales which — some might now wryly observe — bear a certain resemblance to his light air-pumped doughnuts. But nevertheless, like Lovecraft’s work, his interstellar tales pioneered what later became a vast sub-genre.
A liking for doughnuts was not the only similarity in the youth of the two writers. Like the young Lovecraft, as a youth Smith took avidly to rifles and amateur chemistry sets. Hobbies that might have a kooky kid locked up and sedated in today’s America were then quite normal. Possibly there are other such comparisons to be drawn.
Like Lovecraft, Smith’s breakthrough in writing fiction came in the early 1920s. However, publishing was a different matter. Smith had far more trouble seeing his work published than Lovecraft who had the Weird Tales market. Only in April 1927 did the breakthrough The Skylark of Space begin to appear in the magazines. It had been completed years before. Other Skylark novels were published and then Spacehounds of IPC in 1931, Triplanetary in 1934. Thus Lovecraft might at least have noticed these and the Skylark series, though he was largely averse to actually reading the ‘scientifiction’ pulps. Smith only seems to have enjoyed book publication after the war. Also, Smith’s famous Lensman series only began to arrive after Lovecraft’s death.
In 1929 Lovecraft considered getting into the game himself, but he did not think much of the competition…
A good interplanetary or interstellar tale has yet to adorn the pages of [Weird Tales] … I shall sooner or later get around to the interplanetary field myself — & you may depend upon it that I shall not choose Edmond Hamilton, Ray Cummings, or Edgar Rice Burroughs as my model!”
So we know he was reading or had read some examples of the type, and was aware of the emerging sub-genre. Thus it’s not impossible that he at least noticed the emergence of Smith. However, in 1934’s essay “Notes on Interplanetary Fiction” Lovecraft does not mention Smith. The nearest equivalent cited, in terms of galactic scope, is Olaf Stapledon’s seminal classic Last and First Men (1930).
Confirmation of Smith’s non-reading by Lovecraft comes in his letter to Conover in 1936…
About The Skylark of Space — I’ve never read it, since a vast majority of the mature critics who have tell me it has no serious literary merit. From what I hear, it has some clever theories as background, but is essentially a juvenile action-adventure story [of the stock type, and] one can’t spare the time to read everything” (Letters to Robert Bloch and others, page 390).
Again, he recommends that the lad take Olaf Stapledon’s Last and First Men over Smith.
The approaches of the two writers to cosmicism have been compared in one essay, Rolf Maurer’s “Through a Lens Dark and Lightly: The Cosmicism of E.E. Smith and H.P. Lovecraft”, presented at the Armitage Symposium in 2017. But seemingly not then published in Lovecraftian Proceedings #3. Smith’s “irrepressibly optimistic, learn-as-you-go heroes” are contrasted by Maurer with “Lovecraft’s characters as learned-but-fragile pawns of higher powers”.
In his essay “The Epic of Space” (1947) Smith name-checked Lovecraft as a writer he enjoyed, and later in the same essay he implies influence when he states that “Lovecraft was the master craftsman” in atmosphere. Lovecraft’s sense of the vastness of time and space, and the sense of burning curiosity for knowledge may also have been influential, though that’s not stated in the essay. What Smith did not take from Lovecraft, if take he did, was the sense of the un-breakable rules of the cosmos. Galactic space-opera, by definition, must bend the rules.