The twentieth century saw an explosion of horror writers. From the era of pulp to the famed authorship of Stephen King, Dean Koontz, and Clive Barker, writers put pen to paper and horrified their readers with tales of ghosts, monsters, devils, and other terrifying things.
Many of today’s horror writers are masters in conveying the sense of the genre – the intense fear, the feeling of dread and dismay. The greatest among them leave the reader simultaneously wanting more and wanting to sleep with the light on. These writers will cite the name of a specific author as a massively important focus of inspiration.
That name is Howard Phillips Lovecraft.
The Tragedies of H.P. Lovecraft’s Early Life
H.P. Lovecraft was born on August 20, 1890 in Providence, Rhode Island. His father, Winfield, suffered from a debilitating madness and was admitted to a psychiatric hospital. In 1898, Winfield died from “general paresis,” an old term for syphilis. This early stage of Lovecraft’s life included visiting the hospital and listening to his father babble nonsensically. Asylums and madness would become a recurring theme in Lovecraft’s work.
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After the admission of Winfield to the hospital, Howard and his mother, Sarah, went to live with her family. Lovecraft recounted that his mother was stricken with grief and never fully recovered from her husband’s absence and later death. Howard became very close with his grandfather, who encouraged him to read and write. By the age of three, Howard was already proficient.
In 1896, the death of his grandmother sent the family into gloomy unhappiness. This was around the time that Howard started having nightmares. In these recurring dreams, the young Lovecraft was tormented by beings that he called “night gaunts,” and were inspired by the drawings of the French artist Gustave Doré. These night gaunts would later become part of Lovecraft’s stories.
Lovecraft recalled that at the age of five, he was told that Santa Claus did not exist. He replied, “God is not equally a myth?” From a very young age, he began rejecting his Christian upbringing. He found a replacement for religion in his love for astronomy, and while still a child, he published for The Rhode Island Journal of Astronomy.
As a child, he was also plagued by illness, the diagnosis of which is today unknown. As a result, he spent much time in and out of school, with home-schooling making up a large portion of his education. He struggled to make friends and developed a withdrawn personality.
By the turn of the century, Howard’s grandfather, Whipple, who supported the family, suffered financial setbacks, and the family fortune began to decline. In 1904, after a catastrophic business failure, he suffered a heart attack and died at the age of 70. Howard and his mother were forced to relocate to a semi-detached house. Lovecraft described this time as his darkest, and he was beset with thoughts of suicide. His desire for knowledge barely kept him from killing himself.
Despite these setbacks and suffering through a bout of illness in 1904, Howard began high school, which he actually enjoyed. He became involved with a small group of friends and enjoyed scientific studies, particularly chemistry. It was during high school that Lovecraft would start producing short stories that would become the core of his Cthulhu Mythos — the fictional backdrop to many horror stories written by a series of horror authors. The Cthulhu Mythos would later inspire horror fiction through other media, such as films and games. His first stories were The Beast in the Cave, written in 1905, and The Alchemist, written in 1908.
In 1908, shortly before he would have graduated, H.P. Lovecraft suffered another bout of his undisclosed illness which he described as a “nervous collapse” and a “sort of nervous breakdown.” As a result, he didn’t graduate and never went to school again.
Lovecraft’s Career Takes Off
Despite Howard’s mental decline into a continuous depressive state, his mother doted on him, and the two got on well together. He wrote periodicals for science publications and endeavored to continue his study of science. Despite his hard work, however, he found the mathematics involved to be distinctly difficult, and he complained that it gave him such headaches that he would be incapacitated for the rest of the day.
At this time, he also had his first non-self-published poem appear in a local newspaper. It was, by today’s standards, a racist piece that envisioned what America would be like in the future with Americans of English descent being replaced by immigrants. He also wrote other more racist poetry, which was never published.
In 1911, H.P. Lovecraft’s letters to editors began appearing frequently in pulp magazines, most notably Argosy. His letters sparked feuds with other authors who responded to his letters through the same medium. Eventually, his writing skills were noticed by Edward F. Daas, who was the head of the United Amateur Press Association (UAPA). Daas invited Lovecraft and his nemesis John Russell to join the organization, and both writers accepted.
While continuing to write in the years that followed, H.P. Lovecraft became an outspoken critic of commercialism, which he saw as a factor driving cheap publications. He was a purist and only wanted to write for respectable publications. As an Anglophile, he also decried the use of American English, which he saw as inferior to British English. As he saw it, American English was corrupted by immigrants and slang. As chairman of the Department of Public Criticism of the UAPA, his opinion had power. In 1915, he was elected vice president of the UAPA, and two years later, he became the president. He used his position to appoint board members who shared his views.
Being a powerful part of the literary community had a positive effect on H.P. Lovecraft, and from 1917 onwards, he began to devote more time to his writing. During this time, he wrote short stories “The Tomb” and “Dagon,” which were considerably more polished than his previous stories. Howard became more outgoing and ended up meeting Lord Dunsany, an Anglo-Irish writer of fantasy who went on to have a great influence on Lovecraft’s works. Lovecraft also met Frank Belknap Long, an American horror writer who would become a lifelong friend of Lovecraft’s.
Death & Marriage
From 1918, H.P. Lovecraft’s mother, Sarah, began to decline mentally. She suffered a nervous breakdown and was admitted to Butler Hospital. Although her medical records were destroyed in a fire, it is known that she suffered hallucinations of strange creatures that would rush out at her from behind buildings. In 1921, Sarah died from complications from a gallbladder operation. Howard was again thrown into depression, but he persevered and continued writing and attending conventions. At one such convention, two months after his mother’s death, he met his future wife, Sonia Greene, who was seven years his senior.
Three years later, the two were married and left Providence shortly thereafter to seek business opportunities in New York. It was there that Lovecraft met with high-profile writers and editors and began submitting his stories to Weird Tales. In January 1925, Sonia left for Cleveland to follow a business opportunity, while Lovecraft remained in New York to work on his own career. Things, however, would not turn out well for either of them.
Sonia’s business failed, and she lost all her assets. Howard tried to support her, but the editor of Weird Tales stepped down, and the new editor was a person Lovecraft had criticized in his writings; he subsequently fell out of favor.
Sonia became ill, and shortly after her recovery, she was constantly on the move as her job required her to travel around Ohio. At the same time, Lovecraft’s apartment was robbed and completely cleared out. He was left with nothing but the clothes on his back. At this point in his life, he wrote The Call of Cthulhu and other stories in which Lovecraft conveyed the idea of the absolute insignificance of humanity.
With his prospects in New York shattered, H.P. Lovecraft returned to Providence to live with his aunts.
H.P. Lovecraft’s Final Years
After his return to Providence, H.P. Lovecraft wrote many of his most famous stories, including Shadow over Innsmouth and At the Mountains of Madness. Despite the brilliance of his writing, he showed indifference to whether they were published. He accepted the harsh hand that fate had delivered him and made little attempt to promote himself.
He would, however, keep in contact with many other writers and share his ideas. A notable figure in this regard is Robert E. Howard, the creator of Conan. At this time, the “Lovecraft Circle” was born, a group of friends and writers brought together by Lovecraft’s ideas. Through this group, Lovecraft encouraged the sharing of ideas and promote success in the world of writing for pulp.
Having lived separately for several years, Sonia and Howard agreed to an amicable divorce. Sonia and Howard were married for 13 years. She would later discover that Howard had never finalized the divorce, and her subsequent marriage to Dr. Nathaniel Davis was technically bigamous.
As a result of the Great Depression, H.P. Lovecraft’s political views shifted radically. He had begun his adult life with conservative views, but by the mid-1930s, he lauded socialism. He was disillusioned with capitalism, which he decried along with fascism.
With his ever-shrinking financial means, life became harder. Lovecraft also avoided doctors. His illnesses and stomach pains went undiagnosed and untreated until 1936, when he was diagnosed with intestinal cancer. The following year, on March 15, 1937, Howard Phillips Lovecraft died in pain.
H.P. Lovecraft lived a life full of suffering. He was plagued with mental and physical illness. The death and misfortune around him left him depressed and withdrawn. Both his career and his marriage failed.
It is perhaps because of these tragedies that Lovecraft was able to compose feelings of depression and dread into his works.
Sadly, like many creative minds before and after him, Lovecraft only became famous after his death. The fanbase that Lovecraft created after his passing, which exists as a powerful force in the realm of horror fiction, is one of intense passion and respect for the unique nature of H.P. Lovecraft’s imagination.