There are some authors whose work I very clearly remember discovering: I can vividly recall my first Lester Dent Doc Savage novel (The Monsters), my first Edgar Rice Burroughs novel (At the Earth's Core, an Ace F edition), my first Robert E. Howard book (Conan the Adventurer, the Lancer edition)... but I cannot say with certainty what was the first H.P. Lovecraft book I read. Somehow, in the fall of 1965, I became aware of Lovecraft's work; a little bit of detection leads me to suspect that I picked up a copy of The Color Out of Space, a 1964 Lancer paperback with a rather garish veiled-skeleton cover photo with a fuschia background, because I thought skeletons were particularly creepy back then. I still own that edition of that book, in fact. Or it might have been the Belmont Books paperback of The Strange Case of Charles Dexter Ward and, in spite of its dreary cover, gave it a try. (The timing seems right, and there would be a reason for me to take a second look at a Belmont book: I had already purchased some of the Belmont paperback editions of The Shadow, so the company would have been on my literary radar.)
I assumed that there would be dozens and dozens of Lovecraft books to be found; I was disappointed to learn, just a few years later, how very little total fiction Lovecraft produced. But oh, how wonderful that fiction was! Lovecraft may have been the first author whose work I purchased in multiple editions, hoping that the various collections of short stories might contain an unread piece or two along with the already-familiar tales.
If the stories and the language weren't enough to make me a lifelong Lovecraft fan, there was also the naturalistic, almost nihilistic world view. In Lovecraft's world, humans were neither the zenith nor center of existence; The horrifying beings they fought were not evil; their morality and motivations were beyond human understanding in the same way that our world is beyond comprehension to a colony of ants. At times, we and the ants might coexist peacefully; we might even get some amusement from the ants. At other times, we might wish to rid ourselves of them--not because we're evil and wish to corrupt ants, but simply because at that time, in that place, we have no desire to interact with them. Jack London reminded us that humans are less capable than animals or nature in some circumstances; Lovecraft showed us that they were largely inconsequential. That view contrasted vividly with the heroic fiction I was reading at the time, and stood out because of that contrast.
Lovecraft was also the first author whose work so intrigued me that I wanted to read his nonfiction as well. When I found volumes of the Arkham House Selected Letters of H.P. Lovecraft at Wyatt's in downtown Rome, I immediately knew that I had to read them. Like me, Lovecraft enjoyed corresponding with others; I would soon learn that he also enjoyed fanzines, amateur press alliances, and other trappings of fandom that I found so intriguing. Thosed shared interests made Lovecraft even more fascinating to me.
It wasn't long before I discovered the connection between Lovecraft and Robert E. Howard, whose Conan was a favorite of mine. Their philosophies differed, their writing styles were nothing alike, but each was a masterful storyteller and a literary pioneer who influenced and inspired others.
I discovered Lovecraft almost five decades ago. Ever since then, he has been a literary yardstick against which I measure other writers--and very few measure up.
Happy birthday, Old Gent, and thanks for all the gifts...