Howard Phillips Lovecraft, more widely known as author H. P. Lovecraft, was born on 20 August 1890 in Providence, Rhode Island. Like Edgar Allan Poe, Lovecraft was a master of horror who would die in poverty, obscure and unloved except by a few die-hard fans, but after his death his works became famous. Now, like Poe, he is recognized as a master of the genre and is celebrated in literary circles and in multiple fandoms.
His life was lived the way one would expect a turn-of-the-20th-century horror writer to live. He was the only child of Winfield Scott Lovecraft and Sarah Susan Phillips Lovecraft, whose father went mad and was committed to an insane asylum when Howard was still only a toddler. After his father’s phycotic break, Howard was raised in a Victorian mansion by his mother, two unmarried maternal aunts, and his wealthy maternal grandfather Whipple Van Buren Phillips. To complete the stereotype, he was a prodigy who suffered from night terrors and was too sick to attend school most of the time, and his grandfather’s death in 1904 left the family in financial difficulty.
It almost goes without saying that Howard became a gaunt, creepy, reclusive young adult with ‘piercing’ black eyes and very pale skin who was seldom seen outside the house by day. Rather than making friends, he wrote gothic tales and eerie poetry.
In his late 20’s, Howard became part of pre-Depression version of the modern online community, but via snail-mail rather than email. He had “a huge network of correspondents. His lengthy and frequent missives would make him one of the great letter writers of the century. Among his correspondents were Robert Bloch (Psycho), Clark Ashton Smith, and Robert E. Howard (Conan the Barbarian series).” He was a prolific letter-writer, and much more friendly in correspondence than in person. Thanks to his epistolary warmth, there are many “authors later paid tribute to his mentoring and encouragement” in developing their own careers.
He also began to publish his work under various pen names — Lewis Theobald, Humphrey Littlewit, Ward Phillips, and Edward Softly — although he published only in pulp magazines and never with outstanding literary or fiscal success.
After his mother’s death, he actually formed a relationship with a non-familial woman, a widow running her own successful business named Sonia Greene. His new love was 7 years older than he was and she was probably a ‘mother figure’ for the author, but that did not interfere with their happiness together. Lovecraft and Greene married on March 3, 1924, and “relocated to her Brooklyn apartment at 793 Flatbush Avenue; she thought he needed to get out of Providence in order to flourish and was willing to support him financially.”
His maternal aunts were deeply unhappy that the chick had fledged and flown the nest, but Greene was correct – Howard began to come out of his shell once he was no longer living with elderly and doting female relatives. Howard joined “what was informally dubbed the Kalem Club” where “he acquired a group of encouraging intellectual and literary friends who urged him to submit stories to Weird Tales; editor Edwin Baird accepted many otherworldly ‘Dream Cycle’ Lovecraft stories for the ailing publication.”
Greene became ill after a bank failure robbed her of her shop and her life savings, and Lovecraft’s attempts to support them failed because his oddities made it extremely difficult for him to hold down a job. Greene therefore reentered the work force as the breadwinner, but her constant travel unsettled the easily discombobulated Lovecraft. However, it was in this time of anxiety that he wrote outline for what would become his most celebrated work, “The Call of Cthulhu“, imbuing it and the whole Cthulhu Mythos with the “theme of the insignificance of all humanity”.
In 1926 the miserable Lovecraft returned to Rhode Island and moved into a house at 10 Barnes Street, where he would live for the next seven years. This is also the address Lovecraft gave his protagonist, Dr. Willett, in the spine-tingling story The Case of Charles Dexter Ward.
The last 10 years of his life ”was Lovecraft’s most prolific; in that time he produced short stories, as well as his longest work of fiction The Case of Charles Dexter Ward and At the Mountains of Madness. He frequently revised work for other authors and did a large amount of ghost-writing, including “The Mound“, “Winged Death”, and “The Diary of Alonzo Typer”. It was also during this time that he agreed to Greene’s suggestion of an amicable divorce.
Without Greene’s support, Howard was forced to move in with his mother’s surviving sister in a ill-kempt lodging house in 1933.
He was diagnosed with cancer of the small intestine in January of 1937, and suffered an agonizing death just a few weeks later, on March 15, 1937. He was buried in the Phillips’ family plot alongside his parents.
It wasn’t until almost three decades after his death that his work became famous. First, it was lauded by Colin Wilson, in his 1962 “survey of anti-realist trends in fiction The Strength to Dream”, wherein he cited Lovecraft “as one of the pioneers of the “assault on rationality” and included him with M.R. James, H.G. Wells, Aldous Huxley, Tolkien and others as one of the builders of mythicised realities over against the failing project of literary realism.” Wilson’s appraisable inspired others to read Lovecraft’s work, and he “began to acquire the status of a cult writer in the counterculture of the 1960s and reprints of his work proliferated.” Love for his writing was far from a fad, though. By 2005 “the status of classic American writer conferred by a Library of America edition was accorded to Lovecraft.”
His works are commonly thought of as having three periods. His first period displays the strong influenced of Edgar Allan Poe (1905-1920), while his second period (1920-1927) consisted of the Dream Cycle tales inspired by the writings of Lord Dunsany. His final period (the last decade of his life) is thought to be the height of his Cthulhu Mythos stories. Nevertheless, “many distinctive ideas and entities present in the third period were introduced in the earlier works, such as the 1917 story “Dagon“, and the threefold classification is partly overlapping.” Additionally, he allowed other authors, particularly Clark Ashton Smith and August Derleth, to borrow from his mythos and create ‘Lovecraft’ narratives of their own.
Lovecraft’s influence on writing and culture has become immense. Renown horror and fantasy writers such as “Stephen King, Ramsey Campbell, Bentley Little, Joe R. Lansdale, Alan Moore, F. Paul Wilson, Brian Lumley, Caitlín R. Kiernan, William S. Burroughs, Neil Gaiman, and graphic-novelist Mike Mignola have all cited Lovecraft as one of their primary influences.
Film directors John Carpenter, Stuart Gordon, and Guillermo Del Toro also give Lovecraft credit for inspiring them, as do Clive Barker and H. R. Giger. Japanese manga and anime artists and writers, including Chiaki J. Konaka, Hideyuki Kikuchi, and Junji Ito, have also embraced Lovecraft’s stories and mythos. Lovecraft’s monsters, the Eldritch Gods and Abominations (AKA The Great Old Ones), especially Cthulhu, Shub-Niggurath, Nyarlathotep, Dagon, and Yog-Sothoth, have become central to gaming culture thanks to Dungeons & Dragons adventures and video games based on Lovecraftian horror.
In fact, the entire horror genre has benefited from H.P. Lovecraft’s imagination. His creations, such as the aforementioned Eldritch Abomination:
have become a mainstay of horror and fantasy works, along with numerous others that derive inspiration from Lovecraft. They are often used as a Greater-Scope Villain, Outside-Context Problem, Mad God, Evil God or Sealed Evil in a Can. As they are defined by existing outside reality as we conceive it, most also come from somewhere beyond the stars or before the dawn of time or outside our universe.
Other of Lovecraft’s creations, places like the Miskatonic University, Arkham, and the dread sunken city of R’lyeh, have crossed over into mainstream meida, often without overt credit to Lovecraft, as have objects such as the Necronomicon and Pnakotic Manuscripts.
I am, right now, wearing a shirt that says, “Chthulu: Why Settle For the Lesser Evil?” in honor of Lovecraft’s birthday. I bought the shirt on ThinkGeek, a shopping mecca for gamers and nerds. Lovecraft is hella important in our little world.
One of my favorite places that Lovecraft shows up is in the parody detective stories of O.B. Aaron, wherein protagonist Jack Pick battles unnamable horrors with very silly names.
With gratitude for the way in which his mythos has enriched my life, let me wish a very Happy Birthday to one of the forefathers of modern horror and fantasy, H.P. Lovecraft.