Lovecraft, Finlay, Hunt: An Eldritch Cosmic Braid

Our work on early fan history has often focused on “crossovers” — fans who first published in amateur journals but later achieved success as professional authors, editors and publishers. The Earliest Bradbury is a deep exploration of one notable example. We’ve now begun to turn our attention to artists who rose from the ranks of fandom in the 1930s and 1940s. Our first subject: Roy V. Hunt.

The Cthulhu Mythos wrought by H.P. Lovecraft coalesced from earlier hints into his seminal story, “The Call of Cthulhu” (Weird Tales, February 1928). Unlike traditional monsters, Lovecraft’s terror was wrought by beings fully other. Vampires and werewolves are people, transformed. Ghosts, mummies and zombies — dead people reanimated. Frankenstein’s monster — assembled from parts of people. But Cthulhu, Yog-Sothoth, Nyarlathotep — even the names make clear that these trespassers from other dimensions have little to do with Homo Sapiens.

It’s not surprising that tales evoking these unthinkable, uncaring bringers of chaos would unlock new avenues in the imaginations of readers and artists, some of whom found inspiration to capture Lovecraft’s vision on canvas.

Lovecraft himself made attempts to sketch his horrors.

From a letter from H.P. Lovecraft to R.H. Barlow, May 11 1934. The cited sculpture was never produced or has since been lost. Image from the Lovecraft archive at Brown University.
Lovecraft’s notes for “At the Mountains of Madness.” Image from the Lovecraft archive at Brown University.

Shortly following Lovecraft’s untimely death on March 15 1937, August Derleth and Donald Wandrei organized the publication of the first anthology of his writing. After its appearance in 1939, The Outsider and Others struggled to find buyers willing to pay its $5 cover price. In the first issue of the fanzine The Alchemist, February 1940, Derleth issued an appeal in support of the book.

The Alchemist, v1n1, February 1940

But The Outsider was embraced enthusiastically by the fantasy fan community. An early review was penned by one R.V. Hunt, also in the premier issue of The Alchemist.

The Alchemist, v1n1, February 1940

Hunt describes being “swept completely into the outer realms by Lovecraft’s vivid word pictures.” Hunt, already a long-time fan and an aspiring artist, had drawn the front cover for this very fanzine.

[An image of Hunt’s cover for The Alchemist v1n1 should appear here. However, the editors of this zine (by their own admission) were not experienced with hectography and all copies we’ve seen to date have a cover which appears utterly blank. This is especially saddening, since fellow fan-artist Tom Wright wrote to the magazine describing the cover as “one of the best s-f drawings (fan or pro) that I have ever seen.” If anyone has a legible copy, we’d be more than keen to see it.]

Hunt also effuses over the “beautifully drawn jacket by Virgil Finlay.” This iconic imagery is well known to Lovecraft fans, and recently made its television debut in the HBO series “Lovecraft Country.”

Virgil Finlay’s rendering for the jacket of “The Outsider and Others.”
“The Outsider and Others” as it appears in Episode 1 of HBO’s 2020 series “Lovecraft Country”

When viewing the bestial cacophony of this illustration, I can’t escape the term “psychedelic.” It’s not clear that either the author or artist were under the influence of anything but unfettered imagination, but still.

From early writings, we know that Finlay and Lovecraft influenced each other. In 1937, Lovecraft wrote an ode to the artist that appeared in Weird Tales (February 1937). The poem was inspired by another outre image from Finlay — his illustration for Robert Bloch’s “The Faceless God,” published in the May 1936 issue of Weird Tales.

Roy Hunt’s fascination with Lovecraft’s book and Finlay’s cover didn’t stop with his review. Following Hunt’s work over the following months brings us to several stunning examples of the impression made on the young artist.

“Necropolis,” poem and illustration by Roy V. Hunt, “The Alchemist,” v1n1, December 1940 (digitally restored from original)
“Star Spawn” by Roy V. Hunt, from “The Alchemist,” v1n4, December 1940

Hunt’s work is both derivative and original, taking us even further down the path of psychedelia. Fortunately for Hunt (and for us), fanzines of this period had just begun to reproduce images using lithography. The detail and clarity seen in “Star Spawn” wouldn’t have been possible without this technology.

Hunt’s illustration for “The Abyss” by Robert W. Lowndes (another fan crossover), Stirring Science Stories, February 1941
Roy Hunt’s rendering of Cthulhu in “Starlight,” v1n1, Spring 1941. This zine was published by Hunt’s “first fan,” Tom Wright.
Hunt’s cover illustration for “Voice of the Imagi-Nation,” n32, May 1944

We believe the web of influence and inspiration among early fans and fan artists warrants further exploration. Roy Hunt’s artistic career continued for several decades but never fully blossomed. FFE is considering the development of a robust retrospective to give this talented illustrator his due consideration. Other artists on our radar for similar treatment include Morris Scott Dollens, John V. Baltadonis, Nils Frome and John Giunta. Stay tuned!