(Leslie Klinger appears in conversation with local Lovecraft scholar S.T. Joshi at University Book Store tonight at 7 p.m.. The reading is free.)

In a little over a decade, Leslie Klinger has researched and heavily annotated beautiful new editions of the complete Arthur Conan Doyle Sherlock Holmes stories and Dracula. When he announced to friends and family that his next project was the work that became The New Annotated H.P. Lovecraft, he was surprised by the response. "They just didn't know who [Lovecraft] was," Klinger tells me. "Eighty or ninety percent of them said, 'who?'" While Lovecraft has enjoyed a growing cult status over the last half-century in nerd circles, his mainstream acceptance is fairly new—the Library of America collections that came out about a decade ago signaled the beginning of an academic reappraisal of Lovecraft's work, and Klinger's book marks another milestone in his mainstream acceptance.

The New Annotated H.P. Lovecraft is a beautiful book, the kind of dense, attractive volume that actually deserves the word "tome." The book collects nearly two dozen of Lovecraft's best stories, pairing them with a thousand annotations and hundreds of illustrations (from comic book adaptations of Lovecraft's work to spot illustrations from the stories' debut appearances in Weird Tales to other ephemera). It's the perfect book to give people who find Lovecraft's prose to be too strangulating—Klinger supplies definitions for the more esoteric words—or lacking in necessary context to fully enjoy.

Klinger came to a career as a professional annotator through a life spent in nerdy literature. "When I was very young, I read almost exclusively science fiction," he explains. "I read Sherlock Holmes when I was in law school. I wasn't interested in those old science fiction writers," he says, and he "just didn't get around to" Lovecraft until much later. Though he says "my geekdom is sort of broad" now, for a long time "I was primarily a Sherlock fan. I wasn't a Trekkie, but I watched Star Trek. It was Sherlock Holmes that was the narrow focus for a long time." The publisher W.W. Norton & Company contacted Klinger in 2002 and asked him if he wanted to annotate the complete Holmes stories, an Edgar Award–winning project spanning 3,000 annotations that took three years to finish. Klinger pitched an annotated Dracula as his next project, which Norton declined and then eventually accepted thanks in part to a renewed attention brought to Bram Stoker's novel by Elizabeth Kostova's bestselling novel The Historian.

With the completion of The New Annotated Dracula, Klinger says he had "a very difficult time" convincing his publisher of his next project. He pitched an annotated version of The Lodger, "a thinly veiled Jack the Ripper tale." He suggested an annotated War of the Worlds. The publisher wasn't interested. Finally, "I don't even remember why, but I said Lovecraft," and Norton responded enthusiastically. "What interested me about Lovecraft was this intense fan base," Klinger says. "In part, that means there's a lot to talk about."

Lovecraft gets a lot of flack from armchair critics who say that he's a bad writer with great ideas. After his years of research, does Klinger believe Lovecraft is a good writer? "Yes, very much so. I think he's an underappreciated craftsman." He agrees with the criticisms that Lovecraft "uses a lot of big words and a lot of antiquarian words, but he did so very intentionally." In his stories, Lovecraft "deliberately set out to write like an 18th century gentleman or an academic." In "a superficial reading" of Lovecraft's work, Klinger argues, that context is lost, and uncautious readers interpret Lovecraft's craftsmanship as a stilted writing style. "The writing is very plain. It's not ornate, it's almost dry. It's academic. But he did it for a reason," Klinger says.

In The New Annotated H.P. Lovecraft, Klinger directly addresses Lovecraft's infamous racism—the author pretty much hated anyone who wasn't a WASP from New England. "You cannot whitewash the racism," he says. "It's there." But he argues, "If you take [Lovecraft's racism] away, you take away the engine that drives the story. These stories are the worldview of a racist isolated man." Klinger reckons that the other disturbing aspect to the stories comes from Lovecraft's "deep-rooted fear of insanity. Both his parents died in insane asylums," so his natural aversion to madness comes through on every page. "You have insanity and racism mixed together? It's powerful stuff."

Those twin fears inspired Lovecraft's alienation, which is the very quality that attracts his endlessly loyal fan base. Klinger reflects on an event for the book he held in Minnesota two days ago with Neil Gaiman, who announced that he fell in love with Lovecraft at age 13. That makes perfect sense to Klinger: "Doesn't every teenager feel like an outsider?" Another part of Lovecraft's appeal is that "he was one of the very first to create this sort of shared universe idea. Among his circle of friends, they all sort of bought into this elder god stuff and created these toys that they all played with in the same universe," the way Marvel Comics would famously link all their comics together some four decades later, attracting completist fans who love the collaborative appeal of an enormous fictional mythology for authors to play in.

Klinger explains his philosophy of annotation: "I'm trying to enhance the enjoyment of the story. It's like if I could whisper in your ear while you're reading the book, pointing out, 'isn't this cool?'" The Lovecraft book demonstrated different challenges from Doyle or Stoker. With "Lovecraft, there's a lot of glossary, I also wanted to show the depth of his research. He clearly did tremendous amounts of research in the history of New England, and he also did scientific research" into the fields of astronomy and geology. Lovecraft believed that science fiction stories should be 99 percent real and one percent fantastical, and so he dived deep into reality to flesh his stories out. "I'm not trying to show the deep psychological themes" of the work, Klinger explains, "and I'm not particularly interested in the biographical aspects." For this book, he read every single copy of all the major Lovecraft fanzines, as well as dozens of books about the man's life. It's resulted in the kind of nerdy trivia that any copy editor could appreciate. For instance, one offhanded reference in a Lovecraft story to "snow on the river" is commonly replaced by most editors as "scow." Klinger says, "there was a type of boat in the 1800s called a snow, and Lovecraft would have known that." He's trying to restore the author's intent to the story.

Klinger has advice for readers, like myself, who are uneasy approaching an annotated work. Rather than reading all the text and annotations in order, Klinger says, "I insist, I always advise, to read the story first. Annotation will… destroy your appreciation of the story. Then go back and read the annotations almost as a separate commentary." He never expected to have a career as a professional annotator, but now he sounds incredibly happy with how things have worked out. "All writers like to do research," Klinger explains, but "fiction writers throw out 90 percent of their research" in order to tell a compelling narrative. He swells with pride when he announces, "I get to use all my research."