Writing an essay, article, or thesis on weird fiction or any of its favored authors can be a bit daunting. Lovecraft scholarship and criticism alone goes back over sixty years at this point, and is spread out among professional and amateur publications, fanzines and popular magazines, obscure literary journals and biographies, dozens of collections of letters and fiction - a vast milieu of material, thousands of pages, too much for any individual to take in at once, and raising the question: where to start? Most scholars probably start with the material they have on hand, at local and university libraries and the internet, perhaps extending their reach through interlibrary loans, visits to important collections, or purchase of books and journals otherwise unavailable.
Which is all well; it is good for scholars to make full use of their available resources, but there are pitfalls to beware of in this approach. Not all books on weird scholarship are created equal, nor is every source or version of a story regarded equally by established scholars; further, local libraries tend to have notable gaps in their collection. Even if you can identify and obtain the journal or book of criticism that seems relevant to your thesis, much of weird scholarship is built on itself, citing rarely-republished and sometimes very hard-to-find sources, so that many researchers fall into the trap of finding that the one book they thought they need has them hunting for three others. The purpose of this letter is in part to help interested scholars navigate the murky and ill-charted waters, to avoid embarrassing gaps and reliance on books and articles which have been refuted or are considered of poor repute - it is much better for an essay or article to be considered on its merits if its sources are not automatically called into question.
The second part of this letter is about a subject somewhat symptomatic of the difficulty of research: a partial or skewed understanding of the research subject tends to produce a great deal of retreading, with several critical essays and articles covering the same subjects over and over - and what is worse, often repeating the same errors. While I do not wish to in any way discourage critical writings on weird fiction and its authors, I do think it is important that anyone setting out to do so be aware of many of the common errors that tend to crop up time and again in books and essays, in the hope that they may avoid the same. For ease of reference the majority of the examples given will be taken from Lovecraft studies, but the general principles apply to all studies in weird fiction.
The soul of weird fiction is the fiction itself; beyond this weird scholarship extends to look at the historical context and import of weird fiction (like the impact of "The Bowmen of Mons" and World War I), the lives and views of the individuals who wrote it (Lord Dunsany, Arthur Machen, H. P. Lovecraft, Robert E. Howard, Clark Ashton Smith, et al.), their letters and other writings or art (such as the Selected Letters of H. P. Lovecraft), literary criticism in its varied approaches, and so on and so forth. In writing an essay or article on the weird, it is often helpful to categorize your sources to understand how they relate to the subject at hand. Beyond the difficulty of finding a relevant book, essay, or article, there are considerations that should be made with regard to textual accuracy and availability - for example, there are at this point at least several hundred editions of the works of H. P. Lovecraft, from the original pulp magazine appearances (now mostly in the public domain) to various collected editions, where the text has often been amended or revised. If your essay is dependent on the precise wording in a particular story, you may wish to familiarize yourself with the various differences in the texts before selecting the correct reference to quote or cite.
In general, a primary source is considered to be the actual written documents of an author - letters, holograph manuscripts and typescripts, recorded interviews, and that sort of thing. There are several important collections of letters and manuscripts, such as the H. P. Lovecraft and Clark Ashton Smith collections at the John Hay Library, and the August Derleth papers at the Wisconsin State Historical Society, both of which contain considerable unpublished material. In absence of being able to actually visit these collections, most researchers turn to published versions of this material - collections of letters, original and variant drafts, and so on. When possible, it is preferred to refer to source texts than to copy a quote or reference from a later source, as it avoids the repetition of errors and leaves a shorter "trail" between your essay and the primary sources.
A good example of why this is important is the infamous "black magic" quote mis-attributed to H. P. Lovecraft by August Derleth. The incorrect attribution became very prevalent in Lovecraft studies, and among others was cited by David Punter in his highly-regarded The Literature of Terror (1996); subsequent authors cited Punter's work, thus perpetuating the error.
In general, the less expurgated or abridged the source, the more it is to be preferred. For example, the text of a given letter from H. P. Lovecraft to Robert E. Howard might be present in the Selected Letters of H. P. Lovecraft and A Means to Freedom: The Letters of H. P. Lovecraft and Robert E. Howard among other sources, but in the former all letters are abridged and the latter unabridged. This does not mean that the Selected Letters is necessarily a poor source or that it cannot be used - indeed, many of Lovecraft's letters (albeit abridged) are published in those volumes and nowhere else. It is simply helpful to be aware of both the advantages and drawbacks of any given source - if your are quoting the letter and the reference is strongly dependent on the context of the rest of the letter, it is probably better to seek out the unabridged letter.
In a more specific sense for weird scholarship, specific source texts can also be considered or treated as primary sources - for example, the first published version of Lovecraft's "The Lurking Fear" in Home Brew, or the first publication of "The Call of Cthulhu" in Weird Tales. Again, these sources are not always available (pulp and amateur magazines being fragile and expensive), but facsimiles, microfiche copies, and various copies of the specific text usually are, if you shop around. In this case, it pays to be aware of not only which exact version of the text you are using, but also why - for example, if you were writing on the influence of Lovecraft's fiction on Manly Wade Wellman (such as in "The Terrible Parchment"), it would probably be more appropriate to use the pulp versions of the texts which Wellman was likely to have read rather than Lovecraft's manuscripts or later corrected versions of the text.
In many cases, issue of textual accuracy have arisen because of considerable textual criticism and an academic and consumer demand for a "definitive" text or edition. Which is to say, that there are many variations of a given text. For instance in Lovecraft scholarship, there are the surviving manuscripts or typescripts, the original published editions, Lovecraft's comments or corrections to those, the Arkham House editions edited by August Derleth, etc. - all of which show changes in words, spelling, paragraphing, and so on; some substantial, others less so. Generally speaking the "definitive" text of Lovecraft stories is considered to be the revised and corrected versions put together by S. T. Joshi. For the average essay, the fine points of textual criticism may not be a big deal - "The Shadow over Innsmouth" is "The Shadow over Innsmouth" whether Derleth or Joshi edited it last - but for any writer that wants to attempt a close reading of the texts, knowing which version of the text you're dealing with is important, and can even color reactions to your article or essay.
Essentially every critical and biographical work about weird fiction and fictioneers is considered a secondary source (with the exception of autobiographies, naturally), although this can depend on context - if you're looking at the history and development of criticism on a particular piece or author, for example, then you will probably consider original reviews and critical essays (or collections, such as Arthur Machen's Precious Balms) as primary sources rather than secondary. In general, there are two main difficulties with secondary sources in weird scholarship: finding appropriate sources, and evaluating them.
As mentioned, scholarship on weird fiction goes back decades - more than a century if you're discussing pre-1900 publications and authors like Lord Dunsany, Algernon Blackwood, Edgar Allan Poe, and Arthur Machen, and even before that if you extend it to consider Gothic fiction. Many of the early sources are considered classics of weird literary criticism, but having been written and published in periods where there was relatively little known and published about the authors and their works, they are sometimes dated or contain inaccuracies that were corrected by later authors. If you do plan to cite older works, it often pays to search around and make sure they are still revelant to the discussion. When in doubt, don't hesitate to ask around - many scholars of the weird are online and willing to help track down a fact, or check a hard-to-find source.
For example, one of the early contentious points of Lovecraft studies was whether Lovecraft's father had died of syphilis - and whether Lovecraft had in turn inherited congenital syphilis. The issue was primarily laid to rest in Robert M. Price's essay "Did Lovecraft Have Syphilis?" in 1988, where Lovecraft's medical records indicated he did not, but as late as 1996 Victoria Nelson was still assuming Lovecraft was a congenital syphilitic in "H. P. Lovecraft and the Great Heresies." Such zombie ideas have a tendency to persist well past the date they were effectively rebutted, especially in the days before the internet, but today can often be verified or dismissed with little more than cursory research.
Other sources are more difficult to evaluate. With regard to biographies for instance, it is not true to conclude that the latest biography is always the most accurate, nor that all biographies are effectively the same. L. Sprague de Camp's biographies for H. P. Lovecraft and Robert E. Howard, for example, were long considered standard texts for the studies of those authors primarily because they were the only full-length biographies available, but faced many criticisms regarding their approach to the subject and the veracity of their information, claims, and conclusions, and have seen been entirely superseded by works like S. T. Joshi's I Am Providence and Mark Finn's Blood and Thunder, respectively. At the same time, anyone can publish a biography and there are several relatively recent works which are not highly regarded by scholars, such as Donald Tyson's The Dream-World of H. P. Lovecraft and Francis DiPietro's Robert E. Howard: The Supreme Moment, A Biography, specifically because the authors add little to no original research, and indulge in considerable contentious or spurious speculation.
Encyclopedias, lexicons, bibliographies and other tertiary sources do not always exist for weird fiction, but where they do exist they can be extremely valuable as guides to finding otherwise obscure and inaccessible material. For Lovecraft studies, Joshi & Schultz' H. P. Lovecraft Encyclopedia is often invaluable as a starting point and summary for much research. In time, perhaps, internet resources such as various wikis, Amazon.com, GoogleBooks, and GoogleScholar will render these books obsolete, but for the moment such academic works remain a mainstay in many libraries - and, given the cost of works like The Complete H. P. Lovecraft Filmography, probably university libraries rather than personal ones.
These reference works come with the standard caveats: often it is better to follow the sources they cite rather than to reference the bare summaries directly, and of course many such books "age out," some sooner than others. For example, many early bibliographies of Lovecraft are very incomplete, and have been entirely superseded by works like Joshi's H. P. Lovecraft A Comprehensive Bibliography or the Internet Speculative Fiction Database (isfdb.org). When possible, try to seek out the latest and most complete versions of tertiary sources, and try to double-check anything that seems amiss. For example, Mark Owings' Revised H. P. Lovecraft Bibliography makes mention of an early Japanese translation of "The Dunwich Horror" called Dunwich no Kai which appears difficult to find - because, as Joshi points out in his later bibliographies, the Owings entry was incomplete. A small discrepancy, but one which could have sent a scholar on a wild goose chase!
The internet is a wonderful and tremendous resource, full of detailed essays and articles, search engines, public domain works, and more. That said, it is also something of a trap for academics, particularly those who haven't learned to be discriminating regarding their sources. Speaking plainly, it is almost always very obvious when someone is conducting lazy research over the internet. The text for many of Lovecraft's stories are hosted on wikisources, dagonbytes.com, and the Australian Project Gutenberg websites, for example are generally tempting for those who want Lovecraft's works in electronic searchable form, and often come up on the front page of a Google search. However, if you use these sources keep in mind the dispute on textual variations - the publicly-available texts are often taken directly from the original pulp publications, with all their errors intact, not the various revised or corrected versions and certainly not Lovecraft's manuscripts or typescripts. Likewise, it's a good practice to look for sources and citations to any statement made on the web, or to try and independently verify any "facts" that look too good to be true.
Much of the actual writing of essays and articles on weird fiction or writers of weird fiction consists of notes, criticism, literary analysis, and summaries. All have their place in the academic corpus. That said, many of these kinds of work tend to fall into certain patterns, and writers (often through unfamiliarity with the source material) can fall into the trap of a bad approach, or more often a retreading of old ground which has already been gone over in detail elsewhere. When writing anything with regard to weird fiction, a few considerations are in order.
Any technique of literary analysis or criticism has some value, when applied correctly. Lovecraft has been subject to, among other things, textual analysis, close reading, reader response analysis, structuralist analysis, cultural studies, and translation criticism - and that just on his weird fiction, leaving aside the notes on his life, poetry, and non-fiction work. Indeed, because of the large number of Lovecraft's letters that remain and have been published, and the extensive biographies that are available, many writers prefer to try and tie elements of Lovecraft's life into their analysis or interpretation of his work. That too is fair; Lovecraft himself acknowledged elements of his stories came from his personal life and experiences. However, whatever approach you take, it is important to maintain a degree of objectivity to the work - that is, many writers come to the research and writing of the essay with very firm preconceptions about the writer and their writing, which tend to distort any methodology they use into supporting their preconceptions.
For example, it is well-known that in his letters H. P. Lovecraft was prejudiced and xenophobic toward other cultures, and he ascribed to erroneous racialist theories, particularly regarding the biological inferiority of black people. Some of his letters are painful to read by modern scholars because of the use of racial slurs, as well as anti-Semitic, anti-homosexual, and misogynistic remarks. Any scholar wishing to "prove" Lovecraft was racist need go no further than pull a few choice quotes from his letters, or even cite Lovecraft's juvenile poem On the Creation of Niggers. However, to go looking through Lovecraft's letters with the intent to prove him a racist is to miss the forest for the trees - why was Lovecraft prejudiced? How did he express it? What was the effect on his fiction? These are questions that have been asked, and answered, in various essays and articles, but tend to get overlooked. So as difficult as it might be, it is often better to keep a degree of objectivity when researching and writing your essay on weird fiction.
Another major issue is simply retreading, where the writer regurgitates a point of criticism already discussed somewhere else in the critical literature, often without adding anything new or salient to the discussion. This usually comes in two flavors: the writer is ignorant of the original critical literature and so reproduces the arguments by accident, or the writer is ignorant of the larger context of the critical literature and retreads some points that have already been disputed and dispelled - the old zombie ideas shambling forth once again to haunt otherwise bright and shiny new critical anthologies and journals. Both generally represent a lack of research, and occasionally a failure in approach - zombie ideas tend to be tied together with the general knowledge and "mythology" that surrounds certain authors or works.
For example, the claim is fairly often made that Lovecraft had no women in his fiction, which is often tied to various myths or theories on Lovecraft's sexuality - Victoria Nelson in "H. P. Lovecraft and the Great Heresies" is an exemplar of this approach. The truth is rather more complex, as Ben Indick tackled the issue in his essay "Lovecraft's Ladies" and others elsewhere have assayed the topic. Certainly, Lovecraft has a number of female characters - particularly if you count those works he revised or ghost-wrote, which include a few rare female protagonists - but perhaps not as many and not as well-developed or depicted as many readers would like, and rarely in the sort of pulpy romance so common in certain fiction of the period.
This is not to say that retreading doesn't have any value, if you add something new to the debate - a new approach, a new interpretation, and original research are all welcome, even on well-worn topics with an abundance of critical literature. For example, Carrie Cuinn in her introduction to Cthulhurotica wondered: "Where was the secretary with the tight sweater and the heart-shaped ass?" Which is to say, basically retreading the question of why Lovecraft lacked women in his fiction (and to which a Lovecraft scholar might reply "Probably in the copy of Black Mask a couple slots over in the magazine rack.") But framed in the way it is, Cuinn is actually hitting on a viable and seldom-made point: how did Lovecraft's depiction of women compare to those of his peers? Certainly Lovecraft handled women differently than Dashiell Hammet or Ernest Hemingway, but how does Lovecraft's use of female characters stack up compared to Seabury Quinn, or his fellow masters of the weird Robert E. Howard and Clark Ashton Smith? Cuinn does not explore these specific avenues in her introduction, but it is a thought-provoking question none the less - at least, from a certain perspective - and perhaps worth retreading some old ground to answer it.
On a related note, when looking at elements of a writer's personal life and how that reflects on their fiction, be careful not to confuse the writer with the myth of the writer with the actual facts of their biography, nor rely on "what everybody knows" about their work or style. We've already looked at some of the myths that surround Lovecraft, but the same sort of aura of general knowledge surrounds his writing style and the thematic and stylistic conventions of his stories - tentacled monsters from beyond time and space, sexual metaphors, virgin sacrifices to elder gods, musty old books of spells that drive men mad, no women characters, prose so purple it borders on ultraviolet, etc. There is some truth to each bit of "common lore," but if you read the stories for yourself and review them again you'll quickly find that these statements are largely exaggerations or deceptively misleading - not the kind of thing to base an essay on! Stick to the primary sources and make up your own mind about the material you encounter instead of having your opinion decided for you before you start, or writing about something you've never read.
I have covered what I generally find to be the most common sins in studies in weird fiction, which basically boils down to: do the research and question your assumptions. In closing I'd like to add just a few more thoughts for consideration.
Have something original to say on the topic. A good essay is more than an endless permutation on what other people have already said about a topic; while it can be a valuable academic exercise to collate and summarize the disparate thoughts that have already been published, take the opportunity to look at those thoughts and the original material and find something new to say. Articles that contain original thought or research are infinitely more valuable than something a computer could be programmed to throw together.
Exercise distrust scrupulously. When reading the work of your peers in the field, feel free to question their work - but be prepared to back it up. For example in the field of Lovecraft studies, S. T. Joshi, Robert M. Price, etc. loom large because of their consistently high quality of output, backing up cogent analysis with original research and extensive citation. That doesn't mean you have to agree with them on every point and interpretation; polite disagreement and questioning in the heart of academic discourse, and even giants in the field are known to make the occasional mistake, or float a subjective assessment that others may disagree with. No one is free from criticism, and a well-reasoned and well-argued rebuttal is often appreciated, even if not everyone agrees with it.
Subjective assessment has limited utility. While there is often nothing wrong with discussing the subjective value or quality of a work or individual, your private assessment may not be the interpretation of the audience or the author - and if you try to insist that your opinion trumps theirs, you are in for an uphill battle unless you have some evidence on your side. This can be particularly true for symbolism, which can very easily be the subject of conflicting and sometimes bizarre interpretations of the work. Whenever possible, cite instances in the primary sources that support your interpretation - for example, many critics see tentacles in the work of Lovecraft as phallic symbols; this is at least in part justified in "The Dunwich Horror" when the reader gets to the description of the naked corpse of Wilbur Whateley - were, of course, in place of a penis he has a tentacle. While not definitive (as nothing could be definitive short of Lovecraft penning a note saying "All tentacles in my work are representative of the human generative organ"), it is as strong a point as any to support such an interpretation.