Although largely unnoticed during his own lifetime, the work of Howard Phillips Lovecraft (HPL) has inspired a new generation of writers; he is now regarded as a master. His preadolescence was characterized by early precocity and later seclusion. In 1914, he was invited to join the United Amateur Press Association, and self-published many of his early stories and poems in amateur journals. He turned to professional writing for the pulp magazines of the day, before his death of cancer at the age of forty-six. After his death, Arkham House published all of Lovecraft's work in hardcover, where it was soon both criticized and praised.
Howard Phillips Lovecraft, who would later be pronounced "the Twentieth Century's greatest practitioner of the classic horror tale" by no less an expert than Stephen King, was born at 9:00 A.M. in his family home at 454 Angell Street in Providence, Rhode Island on August 20, 1890. As the last lineal descendent of an old New England family, his heritage was of Old Yankee Stock on his mother's side, and of English extraction on his father's.
"Unhappy is he to whom the memories of childhood bring only fear and sadness" (Lovecraft, 1982, 37). In 1893, Lovecraft's father, Winfield Scott Lovecraft, fell ill, and died five years later in a sanitarium. He was later proven to have died of neurosyphilis. Howard's upbringing fell to his coddling, overbearing mother, Sarah Susan Phillips Lovecraft, Grandfather Whipple Phillips, and two aunts Lillian Clark, and Annie E. P. Gamwell.
HPL "was a very precocious child with an amazing memory. He knew his letters at two, was reading at three, and was writing at four" (de Camp, 1975, 3). Soon he read every book in the family library. "This early combination of peculiar heredity, bizarre upbringing, and early bookishness combined to form the mass of contradictions that was Lovecraft" (ibid). Lovecraft became an avid reader at he age of four and remained one for the rest of his life. His first interest lay in the Arabian Nights, and soon he began to pretend that he was "Abdul Alhazred", an Arab character that was later employed in Lovecraft's stories as the original author of the Necronomicon. Next, he discovered Greek mythology and the poems of Homer. He penned his first story, "The Noble Eavesdropper," at the age of six, and his next surviving work, an eighty-eight line poem entitled "The poem of Ulysses," dates from 1897. Certainly few others have attempted to imitate Homer at the age of seven.
Another early literary influence, and one which no doubt fueled his burgeoning interest in the weird and macabre was an edition of Samuel Coleridge's The Rime of the Ancient Mariner illustrated by Gustave Doré. Although he had always been subject to vivid dreams, he then began to have recurring nightmares of being whisked away by winged demonic creatures he called "night-gaunts." At the age of eight, he discovered the work of Edgar Allan Poe, an event he later termed his "downfall" since Poe had the greatest influence on his prose style, and the tales forever darkened his outlook on life.
Lovecraft's grandfather further fostered his fascination with the supernatural by telling him ghost stories as a child. Whipple Phillips also cured the boy of a fear of the dark by leading him around the house from room to room at night. Young Howard's attendance of elementary school was infrequent. He was lonely and often felled by various psychosomatic illnesses. Although his scholastic career was limited, he studied much independently and was no doubt far ahead of his peers in this area. As a child, Lovecraft was taunted with the name "Lovey" and was the victim of schoolyard bullying, an experience with which most writers and fans of the fantastic can identify, myself included.
At eight, he found another of his life's passions -- science, in the form of chemistry and later astronomy. He began to churn out hectographed journals, The Scientific Gazette and The Rhode Island Journal of Astronomy, to hand out among his friends. Lovecraft's first appearance in print was a letter in an edition of The Providence Sunday Journal of 1906. He then wrote astronomy columns for three Providence papers as well as the Gazette-News of Asheville, North Carolina.
"I am not of this world, but an amused and sometimes disgusted spectator of it" (de Camp, 185). The above quotation taken from an autobiographical account in a letter from Lovecraft to editor Edwin F. Baird fairly sums up his assessment of life and personal outlook. Although he wrote of the fantastic and the supernatural, Lovecraft was a lifelong rationalist believing only what could be scientifically proven. At five, he refuted the existence of Santa Claus, and God soon followed suit. Rejecting Christianity, his personal philosophy was one of "mechanistic materialism," regarding the universe as a mechanism wherein human existence is of the least consequence. These thoughts present themselves throughout his work.
"Life is a hideous thing, and from the background behind what we know of it peer daemoniacal hints of truth which make it a thousandfold more hideous" (Lovecraft, 1996,59). Shortly before his death, Whipple Phillips' Land and Irrigation Company suffered a crippling financial setback due to floods in the spring of 1904. This sent the family funds on a downward spiral from which they would never recover. Phillips died of a stroke weeks later that was no doubt brought on by the stress of the incident, and Howard was devastated by his loss. Lovecraft and his mother were forced to vacate their extravagant home and move into a cramped duplex. Accustomed to pampering, Howard was crushed, and for a time contemplated teenage suicide, but the lure of untold knowledge to be gleaned from books rendered the idea out of the question. To compound his worries, Lovecraft's beloved black cat disappeared soon after the move. Lovecraft saw the family servants, horses, carriage, and coachman dispensed with one by one as his comfortable existence faded before his eyes.
To be sure, these bereavements prepared him for the loss that is a part of life, but these strains undoubtedly contributed to a nervous breakdown at fifteen and another at eighteen that necessitated a withdrawal from school that prevented him from graduating. Lovecraft spent the years from 1908 to 1913 in seclusion, during which the young recluse rarely ventured outside and made himself known solely through letters. His mother was slowly withdrawing, and developing neuroses of her own, telling friends that her son did not like to go out in the daytime because of his "hideous" face. The effects of this emotional abuse affected his self-image for years. As an adult, Lovecraft stood nearly six feet tall, with a long face, gaunt figure, and pallid complexion. A lifelong insomniac, he kept irregular hours. He stayed up nights writing stories and letters, and slept till noon. Lovecraft's natural aptitude for writing helped bring him out of his self-imposed seclusion.
Exasperated at the tasteless love stories of Fred Jackson appearing in the Argosy magazine, he wrote a censorious letter in verse, which, when published in 1913, evoked a considerable controversy and a spate of protest letters. The stir caught the attention of Edwin F. Daas, head of the United Amateur Press Association (U.A.P.A), a noncommercial group of amateur journalists who self-published their own writings. Daas invited Lovecraft to join the U.A.P.A, an offer he accepted in early 1914. Lovecraft published his own paper, The Conservative as well as a large amount of poetry and essays in other journals, all under the byline of H. P. Lovecraft.
Before he knew it, he was President and Official Editor of the Association, and later held the same office for a brief spell in its rival, the National Amateur Press Press Association. He "obtained a renewed will to live" through these tasks and decided that perhaps there was an audience for his unique brand of work. "For the first time," he said, "I could imagine that my clumsy gropings after art were a little more than faint cries lost to the unlistening void" (Joshi, 1996, 101).
Through his activities in amateur journalism, Lovecraft came into contact with individuals who would become lifelong friends: Rheinhart Kleiner, James F. Morton, W. Paul Cook, Alfred Galpin, Maurice W. Moe, and one of his closest associates, Frank Belknap Long. In time, he resumed his writing of fiction with "The Tomb" and "Dagon" in 1917, which saw print in amateur journals. He kept writing a small amount of short fictional tales, but until 1922, poetry and essays were his chief output. He had destroyed all but two of his childhood and adolescent efforts.
In 1917, HPL enlisted in the National Guard for service in World War I. He passed the tests, but upon learning this news, his mother and aunts succeeded in revoking the enlistment. Perhaps this experience prompted him to marry in secret seven years later. While still at the forefront of amateur journalism, Lovecraft became the center of a vast network of correspondence that would continue to grow to daunting size until his death. He was one of the most prolific epistolarians in history, and current assessments put him ahead of many other historical figures in this area. It is thought that he composed over one hundred thousand letters entailing millions of words.
Another major facet of his career was begun during this time as well, the ghostwriting of the works of other writers. He received only the merest pittances for this work, and was rarely credited for their authorship. Throughout his life, Lovecraft maintained that he wrote only to please himself. Despite his dwindling funds, he cared not if a tale sold, condemned most pulp fiction as hackwork and chastised those who wrote only for money.
It may be said that Lovecraft projected much of his frustrations onto immigrants, foreigners, and minorities, yet whenever he met a member of one of these groups, he almost instantly liked them. Most of these views, which he later dropped, resulted from his having led a relatively sheltered existence well into his adulthood. Lovecraft was also a lifelong Anglophile. He preferred Old English spellings, and even believed that the United States should never have broken away from Great Britain.
Throughout his life, Lovecraft railed against the advance of progress and modernization, even in language. He mourned the loss of Colonial monuments and any change upon the face of his beloved Providence. From the time he was a child, he longed to find a way to defeat the forces
of time; a concept that would find expression in many of his stories.
In 1919, Lovecraft discovered the distinctive work of Irish fantasist Lord Dunsany, which would prove to have a tremendous influence, second only to Poe, upon his writing. Lovecraft traveled to Boston to hear Dunsany lecture and soon began a series of "Dunsanian" fantasies. Other literary influences on Lovecraft include Ambrose Bierce, Robert W. Chambers, J. Sheridan Le Fanu, M. R. James and two other prime models, Arthur Machen and Algernon Blackwood. Lovecraft was especially impressed with Machen's recurring theme of ancient, dormant evils, which can be awakened in the present with the proper invocations.
At the behest of friends, Lovecraft wrote one of his most famous tales, "The Rats in the Walls," which began his reluctant entry into professional writing in 1923. Lovecraft reports that the work was rejected by the editor of Argosy All-Story Weekly as being "too horrible for the tender sensibilities of a delicately nurtured publick" (Joshi, 1997, 23). He was encouraged to submit this and five other stories to the Weird Tales magazine, which he did, along with one of his characteristically pessimistic letters. To his amazement, they were all accepted by editor Edwin F. Baird, and began his association with the periodical that lasted to the end of his life.
Weird Tales publisher J. C. Henneberger asked Harry Houdini to contribute ideas for a column and stories in an effort to raise sales. Lovecraft was asked to ghostwrite a tale for Houdini, and the result, "Imprisoned with the Pharaohs," led to several meetings between the two men and more revision work. Houdini commissioned Lovecraft to write an article debunking astrology for him, and even proposed a collaboration between himself, Lovecraft, and C. M. Eddy, Jr. on an occult exposé, The Cancer of Superstition, but as the latter two began work on the project, Houdini fell ill and died (ironically of cancer) on Halloween, 1926.
Lovecraft's mother, whose mental and physical condition had been gradually deteriorating, suffered a nervous breakdown in 1919, and was confined to Butler Hospital until her death from a botched gallbladder operation on May 24, 1921.
Weeks after his mother's death, Lovecraft attended an amateur journalism convention in Boston on July 4, 1921 where he would meet his future wife Sonia H. Greene, a Russian Jew who was seven years his senior. Lovecraft stayed in her Brooklyn apartment during his first visit to New York the following year, where he met all of his Manhattan-based correspondents in person. Following an epistolary relationship, the two married in secret on March 3, 1924 notifying Lovecraft's aunts by letter after the ceremony had taken place. Lovecraft moved into his wife's apartment, but soon became profoundly dissatisfied with life in an urban hell. Prospects for the couple seemed bright as Lovecraft was making steady sales to Weird Tales and Sonia was operating a successful Fifth Avenue hatshop.
Troubles arose when the hatshop went bankrupt and Lovecraft turned down the chance to edit a companion magazine to Weird Tales because it would have required a
move to Chicago. He attempted to secure work in various positions throughout the city to no avail, for no one was willing to hire a man of thirty-four with no previous job experience.
Although HPL had many friends in New York, he became depressed by the isolation, lifestyle, and squalor of life in the city. Sonia relocated to Cleveland and Lovecraft moved into a single apartment in the seedy Brooklyn area of Red Hook. Finally, Lovecraft returned to Providence, whereupon his aunts stated that their nephew would not taint the Phillips line with a tradeswoman wife. He acquiesced, and in 1929 a divorce was filed.
Upon his ecstatic return to his birthplace, Lovecraft embarked upon his greatest outpouring of fiction resulting in six stories and two novels that are among his major works. Mention must be made of Lovecraft's fiction and its concepts. Important works produced during his amateur days include "The Statement of Randolph Carter," "From Beyond," and "The Picture in the House," a particularly chilling short dealing with a cannibalistic backwoods farmer who hungered for "victuals" he "couldn't raise nor buy" (Lovecraft, 1982, 35). Prior to his association with Weird Tales, Lovecraft's only other semi-professional writings were the series "Herbert West - Reanimator" and "The Lurking Fear" for the short-lived Home Brew, a humor magazine similar to Mad.
Most significant of his tales written after his return to Providence was "The Call of Cthulhu," a story which emphasizes his view of man's minor importance and utilizes his idea of "strange survivals" from "forbidden eons" (Lovecraft, 1982, 76). Despite his faith in science, Lovecraft also seemed to have felt it would bring about mankind's undoing. He deemed that humans lacked the psychological fortitude to handle any transcendental knowledge. Consider the opening to this work:
The most merciful thing in the world, I think, is the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents. We live in a placid island of ignorance in the midst of black seas of infinity, and it was not meant that we should voyage far. The sciences, each straining in its own direction, have hitherto harmed us little; but some day the piecing together of dissociated knowledge will open up such terrifying vistas of reality, and of our frightful position therein, that we shall either go mad from the revelation or flee from the deadly light into the peace and safety of a new dark age (ibid).
The tale is narrated by Francis Thurston, who, upon examining his late uncle's effects comes across a box whose contents the old professor did not intend to be published. In it, he finds a strange, clay bas-relief inscribed with curious hieroglyphics on its base and above it a monstrous figure with "a scaly body, long claws, wings, and a head with a face of tentacles like those of an octopus" (de Camp, 272). The object was given to the professor two years before by a young artist named Wilcox, who fashioned it from images in a series of dreams of another world, where he heard a voice speaking in an unknown language. The only words he could remember were "Cthulhu fhtagn". The box also contained a series of newspaper clippings from across the globe bearing the title "Cthulhu Cult."
It transpires that the professor had seen the same shape before in the form of a statuette that a New Orleans police inspector had confiscated from a voodoo cult, and brought to an anthropological meeting. Castro, an imprisoned cultist, explains that in other eons other Things ruled the Earth, living in great stone cities, which sunk beneath the waves. Having come from the stars, the Great Old Ones "could plunge from world to world through the sky; but when the stars were wrong, They could not live" (Lovecraft, 1982, 88). Communicating telepathically to the dreams of sensitives such as Wilcox, they organize a cult to carry out the proper rituals when the time comes.
Locating a clipping from a Sidney, Australia newspaper by chance, he happens upon an article entitled "Mystery Derelict Found at Sea," which tells the tale of the encounter of Gustaf Johansen, and his crew with a horror from which only he survived. The article tells that Johansen's blond hair turned white from the incident, and when Thurston travels to Oslo to meet with the traumatized sailor, his widow informs him that he has recently died, but has left behind a diary detailing the experience. The crew saw a great stone pillar emerging from the sea and came upon an island of "weedy Cyclopean masonry which can be nothing less than ... the nightmare corpse-city of R'lyeh, that was built measureless eons behind history by the vast, loathsome shapes that seeped down from the dark stars" (Lovecraft, 1982, 95). The men open a vast, stone door, and out oozes Cthulhu himself, a colossal, gelatinous, octopoid being who kills off the crew, leaving Johansen shaken and his mate mad. Thurston knows Cthulhu will soon return, and fears he shall suffer a similar fate to that of others who knew too much.
Critic Les Daniels has called the tale "the most influential horror story of the century" (Daniels, 159), since it is largely responsible for the "Cthulhu Mythos," a series of loosely connected works by Lovecraft and many others, which depict a race of ancient extraterrestrial "Old Ones" who created mankind as "a jest" and who are using them for nefarious purposes.
All my stories, unconnected as they may be, are based on the fundamental lore or legend that this world was inhabited at one time by another race, who in practicing black magic, lost their foothold and were expelled, yet live on outside, ever ready to take possession of this earth again (de Camp, 271).
It has been proven that the above, long believed to be an actual quote from Lovecraft, was merely a fabrication of August Derleth used to support his interpretation of the
author's conceptions. Lovecraft's major creature creations include the Elder God characters "Cthulhu," "Yog-Sothoth," "Nyarlathotep" and the alien "Yuggothites." His fictitious works of mythic lore and sorcery include the Necronomicon, "a book of portentous spells for summoning dire entities from other worlds and dimensions" (de Camp, 166-67) by "the mad Arab Abdul Alhazred," and The Pnakotic Manuscripts. His correspondents, fans, and later Mythos writers have added to this pseudobiblia.
Many critics have complained that Derleth, in maintaining total control of Lovecraft's works after the author's death, warped the Cthulhu Mythos into his own "Derleth Mythos," corralling the Great Old Ones against each other Western-style, "fighting over possession of the Earth instead of the Ranch" (Bloch, 1982,9), and reducing Lovecraft's cosmic aims to simplistic good versus evil.
Other significant tales written after his 1926 return to Providence include "Pickman's Model," "Cool Air," The Case of Charles Dexter Ward, "The Dunwich Horror," a masterful account of a degenerate family and their hideous spawn, and what is considered by many to be Lovecraft's greatest tale, "The Colour Out of Space." All of the above have been adapted rather botchily as motion pictures.
There are however, many implausibilities in Lovecraft's fiction. Nearly every one of his scholarly protagonists is acquainted with the supposedly rare Necronomicon, and nearly every one of them does nothing to parry the otherworldly threat or warn others about the approaching doom beyond writing a firsthand account of their discoveries.
Lovecraft lived a solitary existence with his aunts, but began to travel widely along the Eastern seaboard to Quebec, Philadelphia, Charleston, St. Augustine, and even so far as New Orleans during the last ten years of his life. He spent several summers with his young friend Robert H. Barlow and his family in Florida. In later years, Lovecraft befriended two transplants to Providence, Harry K. Brobst, and Kenneth Sterling.
During this period, Lovecraft also composed one of his most distinguished works, Supernatural Horror in Literature, a long essay that explored the roots of horror fiction from its beginnings, through the nineteenth century and Gothic novels and on into his own day, originally to be published in W. Paul Cook's The Recluse, and for which he received little or no pay. The essay, which was never even published in its thirty-thousand word entirety during his lifetime, has been praised almost universally, even by his most ardent detractors such as famed literary critic Edmund Wilson, who had to admit that it was "a really able piece of work" (de Camp, 437), while he had dismissed Lovecraft's fiction.
It begins with the oft-quoted declaration that, "The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown" (Lovecraft, 1973, 13). Lovecraft also expounds on his theories for the purpose and effect of the macabre tale,
The true weird tale has something more than secret murder, bloody bones, or a sheeted form clanking chains according to rule. A certain atmosphere of breathless and unexplainable dread of outer, unknown forces must be present; and there must be a hint, expressed with a seriousness and portentousness becoming its subject, of that most terrible conception of the human brain -- a malign and particular suspension or defeat of those fixed laws of Nature which are our only safeguard against the assaults of chaos and the daemons of unplumbed space (Lovecraft, 1973, 15).
While it may be said that Lovecraft somewhat overpraised the work of his contemporaries, it is obvious that for him, this essay was a true labor of love, and the amount of time and research he devoted to it show.
Mention must be made of another primary influence of Lovecraft's. His dreams had a profound effect upon his life and career. Dreams provided the basis and setting for many of his stories and poems. Plagued by nightmares as a child, he continued to have especially vivid dreams for the rest of his life, and many of these were described in his letters.
I have often wondered if the majority of mankind ever pause to reflect upon the occasionally titanic significance of dreams, and of the obscure world to which they belong. Whilst the greater number of our nocturnal visions are perhaps no more than faint and fantastic recollections of our waking experiences ... there are still a certain remainder whose ... vaguely ... disquieting effect suggest possible minute glimpses into a sphere of mental existence no less important than physical life, yet separated from that life by an all but impassable barrier" (Lovecraft, 1995, 15).
More than once, he made statements similar to the quote above, taken from the short story, "Beyond the Wall of Sleep," implying that when dreaming, one enters another world as real as the one they experience when awake. Whether or not he truly believed this is by no means certain, but dreams are a puzzling phenomenon that continues to be studied today, and for which a truly adequate explanation has yet to be reached.
Lovecraft had by now become an enormous influence on a younger generation of aspiring writers, many of whom went on to great success, including Fritz Leiber, Henry Kuttner, Duane W. Rimel, and James Blish. Throughout the 1930's teenage fans and amateurs wrote to Lovecraft, and each received prompt responses along with helpful criticism. Lovecraft read and revised many such tales free of charge, and most never failed to acknowledge the kindness displayed to them by the older writer.
Two of Lovecraft's closest and most fictionally productive friends, Clark Ashton Smith, a fantasy writer who lived in Auburn, California, and Texas native Robert E. Howard, creator of Conan the Barbarian, were known to him only through correspondence. Lovecraft was later shocked to learn in June of 1936 of the suicide of young Howard, who had had such a promising career in the pulps.
Other prominent correspondents were August W. Derleth of Sauk City, Wisconsin, who kept a weekly correspondence with Lovecraft for the last eleven years of his life, and who along with Donald Wandrei, repaid the debt of friendship with the founding of Arkham House, a small publisher for the sole purpose of preserving Lovecraft's work in hardcover, while assuring the publication of his own. Arkham later printed the early work of many young writers including Ray Bradbury, Robert Bloch, Fritz Leiber, and Ramsey Campbell. It continues to be an influence on the industry to this day.
By the 1930's however, Lovecraft's fiction had grown increasingly lengthy and complex. Much of it was rejected by Weird Tales editor Farnsworth Wright as being "too long" and "not easily divisible into parts" (Joshi, 1997, 175). Somewhat thin-skinned, Lovecraft was hurt by these rejections and foresaw his efforts as doomed to be forgotten, having never even achieved a single hardcover sale, aside from a shoddy edition of The Shadow Over Innsmouth. Perhaps Lovecraft took grim amusement at the fact that Wright willingly accepted much of his ghostwritten work for revision clients, while he persistently rejected that which he wrote under his own name.
In 1931, Lovecraft wrote At the Mountains of Madness, a major novel that was rejected by Wright, and did not see publication for another five years. To add insult to injury, when it finally did see print in Astounding Stories, through the efforts of his newfound literary agent Julius Schwartz, it was in a greatly eviscerated form. The fate of the novel that is perhaps his masterpiece hurt Lovecraft more than any other rejection of his work during his lifetime. Despairing, he talked of giving up writing altogether, an intimation he'd echo again and again as his best and most mature work of later years met with successive rejection. However, many a masterpiece of literature and film has first met with critical scorn, only to be reevaluated and praised years later, as was the case with Lovecraft and his writing.
Surprisingly, Lovecraft's opinion of his own writing was low. He was constantly unsure as to the merit of his tales and would often talk of destroying them as soon as they were completed or before. No doubt many a decent tale was lost in this manner. Each story was submitted to the
editor accompanied by what L. Sprague de Camp has called a "negative salesmanship" (de Camp, 178) letter, assuming the tale will be rejected. One reason Lovecraft deemed his writing worthless was because he felt that he'd failed to adequately convey to the reader what he was feeling, and the horror of his concepts.
More often than not, Lovecraft was the victim of Weird Tales editor Farnsworth Wright's critical shortsightedness. With the magazine ever on the verge of collapse, Wright feared to publish anything that might raise a controversy (as the tongue-in-cheek Lovecraft revision, "The Loved Dead," which dealt with necrophilia had), or items of a length that would require serialization. Thus, he was forced to reject much of Lovecraft's longer and more complex work of later years in favor of traditional hackneyed monster and ghost stories of shorter length to appeal to the magazine's general and less literate readership.
Perhaps the greatest regret of Lovecraft's life was his inability to repurchase his childhood home, and as the Depression wore on, his funds continued to diminish, and he lived penuriously on an ill-nourishing diet.
Robert Bloch, a young correspondent who first contacted Lovecraft in the spring of 1933, would later write the novel Psycho upon which the famous film is based. Bloch, who had a long writing career in TV and radio as well as novels, films, and short stories, would also write several perspicacious essays on Lovecraft. In 1934, Bloch engaged in a kind of gag with his friend, killing the master of the macabre off in the story, "The Shambler from the Stars." Lovecraft returned the favor, disposing of Bloch similarly in "The Haunter of the Dark."
Lovecraft's letters cover a wide array of subjects from philosophy to politics to history and architecture, as well as meticulous details of his travels, writings and dreams. He remained open to new ideas, and having once espoused "moderate fascism," he became a New Dealer in the 1930's. During this time his perspective was also affected by the political writings of Emanuel Haldeman-Julius, which were introduced to him by his friend Brobst. Lovecraft's aunt, Lillian Clark, died in 1932 and he relocated into a house with his other aunt, Annie Gamwell, near Brown University.
In 1934, Lovecraft began to complain of a lingering "grippe" and "digestive troubles" (de Camp, 415). These symptoms and his failure to consult a physician concerning them would later prove to have dire consequences.
Lovecraft's opinion of cinema was not high, and he had little regard for the horror films of the day. He walked out on Dracula in 1931, and had to force himself to sit through the Boris Karloff Frankenstein. Lovecraft, denying the radio rights for one of his stories to Wright, told the editor
It is not likely that any finely wrought weird story -- where so much depends upon mood, and on nuances of description -- could be changed to a drama without irreparable cheapening and the loss of all that gave it power (Murray, 1994, 64).
More significantly, he confided:
I shall never permit anything bearing my signature to be banalized and vulgarized into the kind of flat infantile twaddle which passes for "horror tales" amongst radio and cinema audience! (ibid).
Despite his most ardent wishes, Lovecraft's posthumous publisher August Derleth and Hollywood had other ideas for the translation of his work to the screen and air, as we shall see later.
In July of 1936, Willis Conover, a fifteen-year-old fan living in Cambridge, Maryland wrote Lovecraft, requesting his assistance in The Science-Fantasy Correspondent, a fan publication he was attempting to start. The two were soon engaged in a constant, but tragically short-lived correspondence, a debt that Conover repaid his mentor with the publication of Lovecraft at Last in 1975. This handsome volume painstakingly reproduces the whole of their brief, but significant correspondence; often in the original handwriting and is, in the words of S. T. Joshi, " a poignant, even wrenching testimony to the friendship between a middle-aged -- and dying -- man and a young boy who idolised him" (Joshi, 1996, 619).
H. P. Lovecraft eventually succumbed to the ailments from which he had been suffering for the past years. After five days in the Jane Brown Memorial Hospital, he died on March 15, 1937, not yet forty-seven years of age -- from a combination of a cancer of the small intestine and an inflammation of the kidneys. His passing brought a spate of tribute letters to Weird Tales.
Derleth and Wandrei published the first hardcover Lovecraft collection under the Arkham House imprint, The Outsider and Others, in 1939. Undeniably, there is something in his bleak vision that continues to attract new fans and readers, while stories, role-playing games and websites devoted to Lovecraft abound. Numerous full-length biographies and studies of the man's work have appeared from both the student and scholarly level.
His work has also been the basis for dozens of films, most of which are uniformly poor. In 1963, American International Pictures (A.I.P.) released The Haunted Palace, starring Vincent Price, as part of its series of Poe adaptations, and proved to be a surprising success in Australia, where the author's popularity had soared. Although the title was taken from a Poe poem, the film's story line is actually an adaptation of the Lovecraft novel The Case of Charles Dexter Ward. This was followed in 1965 by Die, Monster, Die, a poor adaptation of one of Lovecraft's greatest works, "The Colour Out of Space", which starred Boris Karloff. In 1970, A.I.P. released its final Lovecraft adaptation, The Dunwich Horror. Two short stories, "Cool Air" and "Pickman's Model," were adapted for television on Rod Serling's Night Gallery series.
Then in 1985, director Stuart Gordon released Re-Animator, loosely based on Lovecraft's "Herbert West" tales. The film was well received by fans and critics, and remains a cult item to this day, recently referenced in the Oscar-winning American Beauty. It was followed by a spate of inferior, and poorly produced, Lovecraft "adaptations" including From Beyond, The Curse, Forever Evil, The Unnamable, Cthulhu Mansion, The Lurking Fear, the Evil Dead films, Necronomicon, The Resurrected, In the Mouth of Madness, and perhaps the most ludicrous, Castle Freak. The majority of these films have been pure exploitation, which, in their emphasis on tasteless gore and nudity, would have appalled Lovecraft's Puritan sensibilities, and bear little resemblance, beyond a few of their titles, to the original works upon which they are purportedly based. Of late there have been many independently produced Lovecraft shorts, a few of which have managed to remain faithful to the source. There is even an annual "H. P. Lovecraft Film Festival."
Lovecraft is, of course, an acquired taste for readers. His tales' dense, verbose prose, with their slow buildups, and emphasis on atmosphere over action certainly make for difficult reading, but they are well worth the effort.
Not only has Lovecraft's work attracted legions of fans and occultists, but also has gone so far as to influence present writers such as Colin Wilson, Arthur C. Clarke, Brian Lumley, Ramsey Campbell, Richard A. Lupoff, Harlan Ellison, Dean R. Koontz, Stephen King, and Michael Crichton, to name but a few. Central to the growth and expansion of the Cthulhu Mythos is the willingness of authors to adopt the characters and concepts of others.
Numerous artists have also been inspired by or produced several works based on Lovecraft's conceptions. These include Virgil Finlay, Hannes Bok, Frank Utpatel, Gahan Wilson, Allen Koszowski, Michael Whelan, and Dave Carson. There have even been several spurious editions of the Necronomicon available on the "New Age" shelves of many reputable bookstores.
Lovecraft's stories have even proven to be a source of inspiration in the musical world of heavy metal. The pioneering group Black Sabbath released "Behind the Wall of
Sleep" on their self-titled debut album in 1970, and Metallica's instrumental, "The Call of Ktulu," appeared on their album "Ride the Lightning".
Significant Mythos collections include Tales of the Cthulhu Mythos, Lovecraft's Legacy, and Robert Bloch's Mysteries of the Worm. In his introduction to Lovecraft's Legacy, Bloch raises some provocative questions regarding Lovecraft's personal life and circumstances that biographers have tended to ignore.
Lovecraft is also looked at as a key figure in the development of science fiction and he was the first to mix the genre with weird fiction. As Bloch has pointed out, the story "Cool Air" foresees the science of cryogenics and "The Whisperer in Darkness" was one of the first to use the "aliens among us" theme. Lovecraft also seems to have anticipated the development of cybernetics with his proposed method of Yuggothite space travel in the latter work. It is a great loss to speculative literature that he died just as his work began to improve. His long-held ideas began to find clearer description, and most of his later stories contain greater characterization and plot development than his prior efforts.
More has been written about Lovecraft in recent years than any other writer save Poe, whom many consider him to be the equal to. Critics have attacked both the man's work, and taken pot shots at his character. They have labeled his work "sick" as Ted White did, or charged that his was the work of "bad taste and bad art" in the words of Edmund Wilson (de Camp, 436), and have called him an eccentric, a racist, a closet homosexual, and even a "spineless, sexless misfit" (de Camp, 436), by James Warren Thomas' definition. Yet they still have done little to diminish his stature and influence.
Lovecraft "did not write for the masses and would be satisfied if only a few discriminating readers liked his work" (de Camp, 115). Of that fiction, I can only add another quote of his, "That is not dead which can eternal lie, and with strange aeons even death may die" (Lovecraft,
1995, 55). Through his fiction, Lovecraft, like so many other writers, has managed to cheat death, and achieve immortality. It has had a tremendous influence upon the growth and maturation of the horror genre, and is likely to continue to do so.
Its influence has even spread to the point that there are now Lovecraft scholars; individuals whose majority of work has been devoted to the evaluation and preservation of Lovecraft's writings. The foremost of these is S. T. Joshi, who has written or edited over twenty-five volumes
concerning Lovecraft alone, including a lengthy and definitive biography. Upon examining the Lovecraft
manuscripts housed at the John Hay Library's collection at Brown University, Joshi noticed many textual errors, omissions and misconstrued passages in the published Lovecraft editions. He took it upon himself to revise and update the late writer's entire fictional output, and is even now endeavoring to preserve Lovecraft's writings in computerized form for accessibility online. Through the efforts of Joshi and many others, Lovecraft's fiction will continue to be introduced to new audiences.
Bloch, Robert. Introduction. "An Open Letter to H. P. Lovecraft." Lovecraft's Legacy. Ed. Robert E. Weinberg and Martin H. Greenburg. New York: Tor Books, 1990, pp. 1-8.
Bloch, Robert. Introduction. "Heritage of Horror." Bloodcurdling Tales of Horror and the Macabre: The Best of H. P. Lovecraft by H. P. Lovecraft. New York: Ballantine Books, 1982, pp. 1-14.
Conover, Willis, and H.P. Lovecraft. Lovecraft at Last. Arlington, VA: Carrollton-Clark, 1975.
Daniels, Les. Dying of Fright: Masterpieces of the Macabre. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1976.
de Camp, L. Sprague. Lovecraft: A Biography. Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1975.
de Camp, L. Sprague. H. P. Lovecraft: A Biography. New York: Barnes and Noble, 1996.
Joshi, S. T. H. P. Lovecraft: A Life. West Warwick, RI: Necronomicon Press, 1996.
Long, Frank Belknap. Howard Phillips Lovecraft: Dreamer on the Nightside. Sauk City, WI: Arkham House, 1975.
Lovecraft, H. P. The Annotated H. P. Lovecraft. (Ed. S. T. Joshi). New York: Dell, 1997.
Lovecraft, H.P. Bloodcurdling Tales of Horror and the Macabre: The Best of H. P. Lovecraft. New York: Ballantine Books, 1982.
Lovecraft, H. P. The Dream Cycle of H. P. Lovecraft. New York: Ballantine Books, 1995.
Lovecraft H. P. Supernatural Horror in Literature. (Ed. E.F. Bleiler). New York: Dover, 1973.
Lovecraft, H. P. The Transition of H. P. Lovecraft: The Road to Madness. New York: Ballantine Books, 1996.
Murray, Will. "H. P. Lovecraft: The Unadaptable?" Fangoria's Best Horror Films. (Ed. Anthony Timpone). New York: Crescent Books, 1994, pp. 64-69.
Created: May 3, 2003; Updated: August 9, 2004