THE DEATH OF H.P. LOVECRAFT
The early years of the twentieth century – the heyday of the pulp magazine era – saw the rise of some of the greatest horror and fantasy writers of all time. Men like Arthur Machen, Algernon Blackwood, Robert E. Howard, Seabury Quinn, Hugh B. Cave, Robert Bloch and many others unleashed a torrent of words on their terrified readers. But of all of the great writers of the era, few could compete with an eccentric young recluse named Howard Phillips Lovecraft, who died in relative obscurity at age 46 on March 15, 1937.
Today, Lovecraft’s name is known around the world and has become synonymous with a genre of horror that involves brooding old New England houses, creeping monsters and unspeakable horrors that lurk just beyond what he called “the thin wall of darkness separating reality from the unplumbed gulfs of madness.” His dark tales have appeared in hundreds of books and anthologies and have been made into dozens of films.
Lovecraft wrote some 60 stories and short novels that revolutionized weird tales, many of which were part of what is called the “Cthulhu Mythos,” a term coined by Lovecraft’s friend August Derleth. The stories are a blend of horror and science fiction which has been continued by many modern authors. The premise of the Mythos involved demon gods that came to Earth millions of years ago to dominate the oceans, valleys and remote regions of the planet. In time, these creatures were driven from the Earth by a race of kindly disposed Old Ones. Although imprisoned on far-flung worlds (or in the case of the winged, tentacled Cthulhu, at the bottom of the ocean), the evil influence of the ancient outsiders lingers in certain repellent myths of antiquity, and in backwater places where they are worshipped in horrific rites. It is the struggle between the demon “outsiders” and the vulnerable human beings that moves the Mythos stories along, often to horrifying conclusions. A continuing theme is the constant threat of Cthulhu’s return.
Lovecraft’s stories worked because he knew how to keep the most horrific elements off-stage, allowing the reader’s imagination to fill in the rest. He buttressed his works with references to invented sources – spurious quotations from ancient texts and references to fictional anthropological and archaeological studies, many of them undertaken by professors from the equally fictional Miskatonic University. He intrigued and baffled his readers by mingling fact with fiction and citing passages from “forbidden” grimoires like the Necronomican, written by the “mad Arab” Abdul Alhazred. The Necronomican didn’t exist, but that didn’t stop Lovecraft fans from searching for it in libraries and bookstores. Today, at least four versions of the Necronomican have been created.
In spite of his lurid tales about demon gods, monsters, cannibalism and rotting corpses in remote farmhouse cellars, Lovecraft was a shy, frail and sensitive man, so squeamish that he often fainted at the sight of blood. He was an eccentric who didn’t fit in with twentieth-century life, frequently expressing the regret that he hadn’t been born two hundred years earlier. Most readers of Weird Tales, where many of his stories appeared, would have been shocked to know that such an odd, reserved fellow had written such tales of bracing horror.
Howard Phillips Lovecraft was born on August 20, 1890 in Providence, Rhode Island. His mother, Sarah Susan Phillips, was descended from proud English stock and his father, Winfield Scott Lovecraft, was a traveling salesman for the silverware manufacturer Gorham & Co. When Lovecraft was three years old, his father suffered a nervous breakdown in a hotel in Chicago and was brought back to Butler Hospital in Providence, where he remained for five years before dying in 1898. His father’s death left Lovecraft to be raised by a trio of doting women -- his mother and two aunts. The boy withdrew into a dream world in which the peaceful hills and forests of New England transformed into a weird landscape where strange creatures moved in the eerie mists and the rush of gigantic wings floated down from the night skies.
Lovecraft was a highly gifted child, reciting poetry at age two and reading at age three. He made his first attempt at writing weird fiction, a story called “The Noble Evesdropper,” when he was six or seven. His earliest enthusiasm was for the Arabian Nights stories, which he read by the time he was five. It was at this time that he adopted the pseudonym of “Abdul Alhazred,” later to become the author of the mythical Necronomican. The next year, however, his Arabian interests were eclipsed by the discovery of Greek mythology, gleaned through Bulfinch’s Age of Fable and through children’s versions of the Iliad and Odyssey. Around this same time, Lovecraft discovered the works of Lord Dunsany and Algernon Blackwood. Lovecraft considered Blackwood’s story “The Willows,” about another dimension impinging on our own, to be the best “weird tale” of all time.
Lovecraft was as eccentric as he was precocious. His hatred of foreigners – especially the “verminous hordes of distorted aliens” that flocked to New York – knew no bounds, as did his distaste for all things modern and mechanical. Even though he was married once, he avoided women (except for his relatives) and all things sexual.
As a boy, Lovecraft suffered from frequent illnesses, many of them apparently psychological. He only sporadically attended school and never received a high school diploma, but this didn’t stop him from soaking up information. At about the age of eight he discovered science, first chemistry, and then astronomy. He began to produce science journals that he distributed amongst his friends. In 1906, his first writing appeared in print as letters to the editor and columns in local newspapers.
In 1904, Lovecraft’s grandfather died and the subsequent mismanagement of his affairs caused terrible financial problems for the family. Lovecraft and his mother were forced to move out of their lavish Victorian home into a cramped apartment. Lovecraft was devastated by the loss of the house in which he had been born and some say that he contemplated suicide. In 1908, just before he was to have graduated from high school, he suffered a nervous breakdown, which caused him to leave school without a diploma. This fact, along with his consequent failure to start at Brown University, were sources of great shame for Lovecraft in later years. From 1908 to 1913 Lovecraft was a virtual hermit, doing little save pursuing his astronomical interests and writing poetry.
It was writing that forced Lovecraft to begin interacting with the outside world again. Having taken to reading the early “pulp” magazines of the day, he became so incensed at the insipid love stories written by author Fred Jackson in The Argosy that he wrote a letter, in verse, attacking Jackson. This letter was published in 1913, and evoked a storm of protest from Jackson’s defenders. Lovecraft engaged in a heated debate in the letter column of The Argosy and its associated magazines, Lovecraft’s responses being almost always in the form of rollicking poems. The controversy was noted by Edward F. Daas, president of the United Amateur Press Association (UAPA), a group of amateur writers from around the country who wrote and published their own magazines. Daas invited Lovecraft to join the UAPA, and Lovecraft did so in early 1914. He began publishing his own paper, as well as contributing a large body of poems and essays to other journals. Later, Lovecraft became president and official editor of the UAPA, and also served briefly as president of the rival National Amateur Press Association (NAPA). Lovecraft always believed that this experience was what saved him from a life of unproductive solitude.
Having found his niche in the world of amateur magazines, Lovecraft began writing fiction again, something he had abandoned in 1908. W. Paul Cook and other writers noted the promise in some of Lovecraft’s early tales and urged him to take up the pen again. Lovecraft did, writing “The Tomb” and “Dagon” in quick succession in the summer of 1917. He continued to write fiction, although poetry and essays continued to occupy most of his time. During this time, Lovecraft developed his greatest friendships. His friends were scholars, poets and writers – men with whom he stayed in constant contact through letters, some of which were more than 50 pages long. He eventually became one of the most prolific correspondents of the twentieth century, writing some 87,500 letters. Typically, he had a habit of dating his letters 200 years earlier than the actual date.
It’s through his letters that we know most of what we do about this complex and enigmatic man who, even though he never published a single book during his lifetime and died a pauper, became one of America’s most celebrated horror writers. Today, Lovecraft and his mythical creations turn up in such diverse places as episodes of South Park and songs by Metallica. He even has a Facebook page. Like his hero Edgar Allan Poe, whom he called “my god of fiction,” Lovecraft did not live long enough to savor his fame. It is because of the friendships that he developed through his letter writing, especially that of August Derleth and Donald Wandrei, co-founders of Arkham House, the publishing company that introduced Lovecraft to the masses, that his work has survived.
Lovecraft’s mother suffered a nervous breakdown in 1919 and was admitted to Butler Hospital. Her death on May 24, 1921, resulted from a bungled gall bladder operation. Lovecraft was shattered by the loss of his mother, but in a few weeks had recovered enough to attend an amateur journalism convention in Boston on July 4, 1921.
It was at this convention that he first met the woman who would become his wife. Sonia Haft Greene was a Russian-born Jewish widow who was seven years older than Lovecraft. In spite of the age difference and Lovecraft’s usual dislike of foreigners, the two seemed happy together, at least at first. Lovecraft visited Sonia in her Brooklyn apartment in 1922, and the news of their marriage in St. Paul’s Chapel in Manhattan on March 3, 1924, was not entirely a surprise to their friends. However, Lovecraft’s aunts, Lillian D. Clark and Annie E. Phillips Gamwell, were notified of the ceremony by letter after it was over. Lovecraft moved into Sonia’s apartment in Brooklyn, and initial prospects for the couple seemed good. Lovecraft was starting to see a small amount of success from the acceptance of several of his stories by Weird Tales, the celebrated pulp magazine that was founded in 1923, and Sonia was the owner of a successful hat shop on Fifth Avenue.
But trouble soon found the couple -- the hat shop went bankrupt, Lovecraft turned down the chance to edit a companion magazine to Weird Tales that would have forced him to move to Chicago, and Sonia’s health collapsed, forcing her to spend time in a New Jersey sanitarium. Lovecraft tried to find work, but there was little work available for a 34-year-old man with no job experience. On January 1, 1925, Sonia moved to Cleveland to take a job there and Lovecraft moved into Brooklyn’s seedy Red Hook neighborhood.
Although Lovecraft did have friends in New York, he became increasingly depressed by his isolation and the “foreigners” that surrounded him in the city. His fiction turned from the nostalgic (“The Shunned House,” which is set in Providence) to the bleak (“The Horror at Red Hook” and “He,” which lay bare his feelings about New York. Finally, in 1926, he made plans to return to Providence, which he missed badly. He had no idea how Sonia fit into his plans. Although he continued to profess his affection for her, he went along with his aunts when they barred her from coming to Providence to start a business. They refused to allow their nephew to be tainted by the stigma of a wife who was a tradeswoman. The marriage was essentially over and they divorced in 1929.
When Lovecraft returned to Providence in 1926, he did not hide away from the world as he had done before. In fact, the last 10 years of his life were his best years, both as a writer and as a human being. His life was relatively uneventful. He traveled widely to various antiquarian sites around the eastern seaboard. He wrote his greatest fiction, from “The Call of Cthulhu” (1926) to “At the Mountains of Madness” (1931) to “The Shadow out of Time” (1934–35) and he continued his vast correspondence. He had not only found his niche as a New England writer of weird fiction but as a man of letters. He nurtured the careers of many young writers, became concerned with political and economic issues, and he continued absorbing knowledge on a wide array of subjects, from philosophy to literature to history to architecture.
The last two years of Lovecraft’s life were filled with hardship. In 1936 his beloved aunt, Lillian Clark, died, and he moved into a house with his other aunt, Annie Gamwell, soon after. His later stories, increasingly lengthy and complex, became difficult to sell, and he was forced to support himself largely through the “revision” or ghost-writing of stories, poetry, and nonfictions works. In 1936, the suicide of Robert E. Howard, one of his closest correspondents, left him confused and saddened. By this time, the intestinal cancer that would cause Lovecraft’s death had already progressed too far for treatment.
He grew weaker and by February 1937, emaciated and in great pain, Lovecraft was confined to bed. He continued to write, propped up on pillows, but his cancer was so painful that he had to be fed intravenously and frequently sedated with morphine. He carried on for as long as he could but was finally compelled to enter Jane Brown Memorial Hospital on March 10, 1937, where he died five days later – pen and notebook in hand.
He was buried on March 18 at the Phillips family plot at Providence’s Swan Point Cemetery, a graveyard filled with ancient trees and crumbling tombstones that once likely served as inspiration for his fevered tales.