Having died prematurely at the age of 46 on March 15, 1937, HP Lovecraft lived without knowing the pleasure of seeing his work published. We tell you how it all happened, to celebrate the incredible talent of the too long underestimated American writer.
Howard Phillips Lovecraft, a precocious talent
Howard Phillips Lovecraft was born on August 20, 1890 at 9:00 am in his family home at 454 (then 194) Angell Street in Providence, Rhode Island. His mother was Sarah Susan Phillips Lovecraft, his father was Winfield Scott Lovecraft, a traveling salesman for Gorham & Co., a goldsmith from Providence.
When Lovecraft was three years old, his father, struck by a nervous breakdown in a Chicago hotel room, was taken to Butler Hospital where he remained for five years before he died on July 19, 1898.
Lovecraft was apparently told that his father was paralyzed and in a coma during this time, but surviving evidence suggests this was not the case; it is almost certain that Lovecraft’s father died of paresis, a form of neurosyphilis.
After the death of his father, young Lovecraft’s education fell into the hands of his mother, his two aunts and even more so his grandfather, the eminent industrialist Whipple Van Buren Phillips.
Lovecraft was a precocious young man, like so many we met on this blog, such as Arthur Rimbaud. Little Howard recited poetry at the age of two, read at the age of three, and wrote well at the age of six or seven. He became enthusiastic about the Thousand and One Nights, which he read at the age of five. It was around this time that he adopted the pseudonym “Abdul al-Hazred”, who would later become the author of the mythical pseudobiblion Necronomicon.
However, the following year his Arab interests were overshadowed by his discovery of Greek mythology, collected from Bulfinch’s “The Age of Fable” and the children’s versions of “The Illiad” and “The Odyssey”. Indeed, his oldest literary work, “The Poem of Ulysses”, 1897, is a paraphrase of the Odyssey in 88 internal rhyming lines.
The numerous interests
Lovecraft had also already discovered fantastic fiction at the time, and his first story, the unobtainable “The Noble Eavesdropper”, may date back to 1896. His interest in “the strange” was later passed on by his grandfather, who entertained Lovecraft. with fantastic stories from the gothic universe.
In his youth, Lovecraft was somewhat lonely and suffered from frequent illnesses, many of them apparently psychological. His attendance at Slater Avenue School was sporadic, so Lovecraft gathered a lot of information through independent reading.
Around the age of eight he discovered science, first chemistry and then astronomy. He began producing ectographic journals, “The Scientific Gazette” (1899-1907) and “The Rhode Island Journal of Astronomy” (1903-1907), to be distributed to his friends.
When he entered Hope Street Secondary School, he found his teachers and colleagues friendly and encouraging and made many lasting friendships with boys his age.
Lovecraft’s first “press appearance” dates back to 1906, when he wrote a letter on an astronomical subject to The Providence Sunday Journal. Soon after, he began writing a monthly astronomy column for the Pawtuxet Valley Gleaner, a rural newspaper; he later wrote columns for “The Providence Tribune” (1906-1908) and “The Providence Evening News” (1914-1918), as well as “The Asheville Gazette News” (1915).
The hermit HP Lovecraft
In 1904, the death of Lovecraft’s grandfather and the mismanagement of his property and business plunged the family into serious financial difficulties. Lovecraft and his mother were forced to abandon their sumptuous Victorian home on Angell Street.
Lovecraft was devastated by the loss of his birthplace and apparently contemplated suicide, as he took long bike rides and wistfully gazed into the watery depths of the Barrington River. But the thrill of continuing to learn luckily drives away those thoughts. In 1908, however, shortly before finishing high school, he had a nervous breakdown that forced him to drop out of school without a diploma. This fact, and his subsequent inability to enter Brown University, were a great shame to Lovecraft in the following years, although he was one of the most formidable self-taught of his time.
From 1908 to 1913 Lovecraft became something of a hermit, putting aside everything but his interests in astronomy and his poetic writings. Throughout this time he had an unhealthy relationship with his mother, who was still suffering from the trauma of her husband’s illness and death, and who had developed a pathological love-hate relationship with her son.
Lovecraft came out of his hermitage in a very peculiar way. Having started reading the first “pulp” magazines of the time, he became so enraged by the tasteless love stories of a certain Fred Jackson in “The Argosy” that he wrote a letter, in verse, attacking Jackson. This letter was published in 1913 and caused a storm of protests from Jackson’s defenders. Lovecraft thus engaged in a heated debate in the column of letters of The Argosy and its associated magazines, with the answers of our protagonist today almost always gloomy: heroic couplets reminiscent of Dryden and Pope.
Breaking out of isolation
This controversy was discovered by Edward F. Daas, president of the United Amateur Press Association (UAPA), a national group of amateur writers who have written and published their own magazines. Daas invited Lovecraft to join UAPA, which he did in early 1914.
Lovecraft published thirteen issues of her diary, “The Conservative” (1915-1923), as well as poems and voluminous essays for other journals. Later, Lovecraft became president and official editor of the UAPA, and was also briefly president of the NAPA (National Amateur Press Association), its rival.
The whole experience may have saved Lovecraft from a life of unproductive isolation; as he once said:
In 1914, when the friendly hand of amateurism was extended to me, I was closer to being a vegetable as any animal can be … I rediscovered the joy of living, a renewed feeling of existence lived differently than as an unnecessary burden; and I found a sphere where I could feel that my efforts were not entirely in vain. For the first time I could imagine that my awkward artistic endeavors were little more than faint lost cries in a world where I was hardly heard.
It was then in the amateur world that Lovecraft resumed writing fiction, which he had abandoned in 1908. W. Paul Cook and others, underlining the promise made in ancient tales such as “The Beast of the Cave”, 1905 and “The Alchemist”, 1908, they urged Lovecraft to pick up the pen to write fiction.
This was the case, and Lovecraft wrote “The Tomb” and “Dagon”. Subsequently he maintained a steady but scarce flow of writing, so much so that at least until 1922, poetry and essays were still the dominant mode of literary expression of him.
Success and difficulties go hand in hand
Lovecraft was also involved in a growing network of correspondence with friends and associates and eventually became one of the greatest and most prolific letter writers of the century.
Lovecraft’s mother, whose mental and physical conditions were deteriorating, had a nervous breakdown in 1919 and was admitted to Butler Hospital from which she, like her husband, would never leave. Her death on May 24, 1921, however, was the result of a failed gallbladder operation.
Lovecraft was devastated by the loss of his mother, but within weeks he recovered enough to attend an amateur journalism convention in Boston on July 4, 1921. It was there that the woman who would become his wife, Sonia, first met her. Haft Greene. Lovecraft visited Sonia in her Brooklyn apartment in 1922 and the announcement of their marriage on March 3, 1924 does not seem to have surprised their friends; but probably more Lovecraft’s two aunts, Lillian D. Clark and Annie E. Phillips Gamwell, who were not informed except by letter until after the ceremony.
Lovecraft moved into Sonia’s Brooklyn apartment and the initial prospects for the couple looked good. Lovecraft had established himself as a professional writer and many of his stories were accepted by various magazines. Sonia had a successful hat shop on Fifth Avenue in New York.
But the troubles hit the couple almost immediately: the millinery failed, Lovecraft refused to publish some writings and Sonia’s health conditions failed, forcing him to spend time in a New Jersey sanatorium. Lovecraft tried to find work, but few people were willing to hire a 34-year-old man with no work experience.
The complicated relationships of HP Lovecraft
On January 1, 1925, Sonia went to Cleveland to find work there. Lovecraft then moved into a simple apartment near Brooklyn’s gloomy Red Hook neighborhood.
Although Lovecraft had many friends in New York, he became increasingly depressed by his isolation of himself and the mass of strangers in the city. His narrative has gone from nostalgic (“The Shunned House”, 1924 – set in Providence) to dark and misanthropic (“The Horror at Red Hook” – and “He” – “He”, 1924 – revealing the feelings of him for New York).
In early 1926, Lovecraft wanted to return to live in Providence, a city he missed so much. And Sonia? Although he continued to profess his affection for her, Lovecraft agreed when his aunts forbade him to go to Providence to start a business: their nephew was not to be tainted by prejudices about his wife, a business woman! Their marriage was essentially over and a divorce in 1929 was inevitable.
When Lovecraft returned to Providence on April 17, 1926, he settled at 10 Barnes Street, north of Brown University, but he did not isolate himself as he had from 1908 to 1913. The last ten years of his life were marked by his greatest flowering, both as a writer and as a human being.
His life was relatively easy: he traveled extensively to various ancient sites on the east coast, wrote his greatest fiction, from “The Call of Cthulhu” to “At the Mountains of Madness” and “The Shadow out of Time”; and continued his prodigiously extensive correspondence.
The Cthulhu cycle
The Cthulhu Cycle is the main work of today’s protagonist, of which numerous stories are part. For each story the (presumed) date of writing is indicated and each of them is independent of the other, and does not follow a particular order.
The Cycle, or myth of Ctuhulhu, tells the following story: Millions of years ago, when the stars were in their proper place, Cthulhu ruled the world from his dark home of R’Iyeh. But after the stars changed, R’lyeh sank beneath the waves and Cthulhu fell into an eternal but dream-filled sleep. He used these dreams to communicate with his followers, from prehistoric times to the present.
Cthulhu is, always has been and will be for all eternity. And one day, if the stars reposition themselves properly, he will come out of his long sleep and regain dominion over this world that is rightfully to him. These thirteen tales are about Cthulhu and the influence he has had over the centuries.
And the influence of Cthulhu and the Lovecraftian opera has really resonated over time: other writers have been inspired by this cycle, but also numerous Metal, musicians , for example Iron Maiden, Metallica and Black Sabbath, to name a few.
Finding a place in the world
But HP Lovecraft had found his place as a writer of New England fantasy novels and a man of letters in general. He nurtures the careers of many young writers (August Derleth, Donald Wandrei, Robert Bloch, Fritz Leiber); he was concerned with political and economic issues, as the Great Depression led him to support Roosevelt and become a moderate socialist; and he continued to absorb knowledge of a wide range of subjects, from philosophy and literature to history and architecture.
The last two or three years of his life, however, were filled with difficulties. In 1932, his beloved aunt, Mrs. Clark, died. H.P. Lovecraft moved to 66 College Street, just behind the John Hay Library, with his other aunt, Mrs. Gamwell, in 1933. His later stories, ever longer and more complex, became difficult to sell, and he was forced to support himself largely by “editing” or writing stories and poems as a ghostwriter.
Death and legacy of HP Lovecraft
In 1936, the suicide of Robert E. Howard, one of his closest correspondents, left him confused and saddened. By this time, the disease that would cause his own death – bowel cancer – had already progressed to such an extent that it became difficult to cure.
Lovecraft struggled to overcome the growing pain throughout the winter of 1936-1937, but was eventually forced to Jane Brown Memorial Hospital on March 10, 1937, where he died five days later.
His burial took place on March 18 on the Phillips family grounds at Swan Point Cemetery. It is likely that, feeling death approaching, Lovecraft contemplated the ultimate oblivion of his work. He had never had a single real book published in his life, while his stories, essays and poems have been scattered in a bewildering number of magazines, amateur or pulp books.
But the friendships he made only through correspondence helped him: August Derleth and Donald Wandrei were determined to preserve Lovecraft’s stories in the dignity of hardcover books and founded Arkham House publishing house to publish his Lovecraft work. Many other volumes were subsequently published by Arkham House. Lovecraft’s works were eventually published in print and translated into a dozen languages.
Today, nearly a century after his death, his stories are available in textually correct editions. His essays, poems and letters are widely available, and many scholars have explored the depths and intricacies of his work and his thinking.
Much remains to be done in Lovecraft’s studies. However, it can be said that thanks to the intrinsic merit of his work and the diligence of his collaborators and followers, Lovecraft has carved out a small but unassailable niche in the pantheon of American and world literature. He got closer to otherbetter known colleagues with whom he shares themes, settings and style: Edgar Allan Poe, Stephen King, Oscar Wilde, Bram Stoker, Mary Shelley and many more.