Introducing readers to the man that Stephen King calls “the father of modern horror” is no small task, especially given the restraints of a column, so please forgive me in advance if this explanation of the life, works, and influence of H.P. Lovecraft barely scratches the surface. I’d be doing us all a disservice to pretend to be an expert on the reclusive turn of the 20th century author. Far greater intellects than I have devoted themselves to the study and understanding of this extraordinary writer, whose visions of a cosmos filled with monsters, aliens, and indifferent Gods has touched every corner of modern day science fiction and horror. Consider this a doorway to explore into the worlds dreamed up by a gifted if troubled mind, ones fraught with terrible wonder and secrets so overwhelming they literally leave many of Lovecraft’s protagonists stark raving mad at their revelation. While there is more than enough material to spend months covering him and his life, I’ve decided to break this into a three part series focusing on Lovecraft, the Cthulhu Mythos, and the Necronomicon. Let’s start with the progenitor himself.
Howard Phillips Lovecraft, or H.P. Lovecraft as he would later come to be known, was an American horror writer who was practically unknown in his time, only published in pulp magazines, and died in abject poverty despite coming from a very wealthy family. H.P. was a classic Anglophile who could trace his roots back to Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1631 on his mother’s side and 15th century England on his father’s. Often called a product of his times, whose admiration for the ideals of the 18th century gentleman arguably belied a streak of racism and xenophobia, Lovecraft was above all else a sensitive recluse. It was perhaps because of this that he created a new mythos of horror that reimagined the entire genre, taking it away from the gothic constraints of his childhood idol Edgar Allen Poe, and influencing generations of future writers, filmmakers, video game designers, artists, anime scrip writers, musicians, and even boardgame creators in the process. Writers like Stephen King, Clive Barker, William S. Burroughs, Neil Gaiman and countless more have all confessed to being pulled under Lovecraft’s hypnotic spell. Legendary horror director John Carpenter‘s “The Thing” is an homage to Lovecraft’s “Mountains of Madness,” if not an outright rip off. Lovecraft’s impact can also be clearly seen in blockbuster movies from “Alien” to “Predator” and even “Pirates of the Caribbean” in the tentacle-faced Davy Jones. Metallica, Black Sabbath, Artic Monkeys and other musicians have written songs that pay tribute to his legacy as well. Chaosium’s role-playing game “Call of Cthulhu” has been in print for over 30 years now and is still going strong. Chiaki J. Konaka, an acknowledged disciple of Lovecraft, is credited with spreading his influence among his anime base. The list goes on and on.
H.P. Lovecraft is now regarded as one of the most significant 20th-century authors in his genre, but to really understand Lovecraft you have to know his background, since it directly contributed to the creation of his vast and sprawling fictional legacy nearly every step of the way.
Lovecraft was born on August 20, 1890 in his family home in Providence, Rhode Island. As an only child who was frequently ill, he was coddled by his affectionless, Puritanical mother Sarah Susan Phillips who referred to him as hideous. He came to believe her, further fueling his insecurities and furthering his sense of isolation. He later divulged to his wife that how his mother raised him left him feeling absolutely devastated. In April of 1893 his father, Winfield Scott Lovecraft, a travelling salesman, fell into a bout of madness and was placed in the Providence psychiatric institution Butler Hospital where he remained until his death of syphilis in July of 1898.
After his father’s hospitalization, Lovecraft was raised by his troubled mother, her two sisters, and his maternal grandfather, Whipple Van Buren Phillips. Whipple, a successful businessman, played a big part in helping to shape the budding author, encouraging his studies and providing Howard with classics like The Arabian Nights and children’s versions of the Iliad and the Odyssey from his enormous personal library. Lovecraft was a prodigy, reciting poetry at the age of three, and writing complete poems by six. Whipple also introduced him to Gothic horror by telling him ghost stories. It was also during this period, perhaps not coincidentally, that he began to suffer from night terrors in which he believed he was being attacked by ‘night gaunts’ – monsters without faces that would sweep him up by the stomach and carry him away.
The death of his grandfather, the squandering of their family fortune on bad investments, his inability to master the requisite higher mathematics needed to become a professional astronomer and his dropping out of school, were all contributing factors to Howard’s self-diagnosed nervous breakdown. He lived in isolation with his mother during this time, had no friends, and rarely went out before dark. Unemployed, he spent his days lounging around the house writing poetry. In 1913 he wrote a letter to The Argosy, a pulp magazine, trashing writer Fred Jackson for his love stories and sparking a debate that caught the attention of Edward F. Daas, the president of the United Amateur Press Association or UAPA. Edward saw promise in Lovecraft and asked him to become a member of the organization in 1914.
Joining the UAPA brought new life to Lovecraft and his writing. He began contributing poems and essays, and by 1916 had his first published story, “the Alchemist.” By 1922 he was getting paid for his writing and had amassed an impressive network of correspondents, including Robert Bloch, the author of “Psycho,” and Robert E. Howard, the creator of the Conan the Barbarian series. He also encouraged countless authors through his innumerable and lengthy letters. A few days after his mother’s death from gall bladder surgery complications, Lovecraft attended a convention of amateur journalists in Boston, Massachusetts, where he met and became friendly with Sonia Greene, a woman older and far more experienced in the ways of the world. Against his remaining family’s wishes the two married and moved into her Brooklyn apartment where she introduced him to sex, good home cooking, and the wonders of big city living. Lovecraft developed a group of literary friends (he dubbed them the Kalem club) who urged him to submit stories to Weird Tales, one of the only places he ever published under his own name.
Financial difficulties and health issues caused his wife to relocate to Cleveland while Lovecraft remained in Red Hook, a city with a large immigrant population. During one of her work trips Lovecraft’s one bedroom apartment was broken into and robbed. They left him with only the clothes on his back. Afterward he wrote “The Horror at Red Hook” and “He,” in which the narrator bemoans “my coming to New York had been a mistake; for whereas I had looked for poignant wonder and inspiration … I had found instead only a sense of horror and oppression which threatened to master, paralyze, and annihilate me.” He also wrote the original outline for “The Call of Cthulhu” while in Red Hook. Its dour theme was the insignificance of all humanity in the face of the Old Gods. Unable to procure gainful employment, Lovecraft used his weekly allowance his wife sent him to move first to a tiny apartment in a working class area of Brooklyn Heights and then later back to Providence. It was the last decade of his life and also the most prolific, with Lovecraft pumping out some of his most celebrated works including “The Case of Charles Dexter Ward” and “At the Mountains of Madness.” When he wasn’t writing for himself he was helping other authors revise their work or ghost writing for clients like Harry Houdini, who attempted to help Lovecraft by introducing him to the head of a newspaper syndicate before his untimely death.
Despite his growing popularity, Lovecraft remained a cult figure in his life and rarely saw pay for his work. He pretended to be indifferent, but was in reality overly sensitive to criticism and often gave up on a story on the first try if it was rejected by a publisher. He also wrote stories he never sold, including “The Case of Charles Dexter Ward,” which although completed was never typed up. Lovecraft even ignored interested publishers when they contacted him asking for work and offered to pay him for whatever he had laying around. Imposing his own austerity measures he survived on a small inheritance sometimes going without food so he could afford postage to communicate with his friends. In early 1937, purportedly as a result of malnutrition, Lovecraft was diagnosed with cancer of the small intestine. Ever fascinated by science and the macabre he kept a diary of his illness almost up and until the moment of his death.
The loss of his father to insanity and then death, the loss of his mother, the crippling insecurity and resulting isolation, all show up in Lovecraft’s work, right alongside his fascination with science, astronomy, and chemistry. Many of his characters are driven mad by the incomprehensible and alien truths they unearth in their quest for dark, forbidden knowledge. There is also the concept of inherited guilt in his works, the descendants of a blood line being passed along the sins of their predecessors, a fatalistic view that clearly points to his own recurring childhood fears. The inherent racism in many of his stories and letters reflects his New England upbringing along with his misadventures in New York. His protagonists tend to be educated men, who use science and reason to support their lack of faith. Cosmic indifference, doomsday cults worshipping destructive Gods who are actively hostile to humanity, and the positing of new creation myths for mankind revolving around ancient aliens spawning the human race all underscore his avowed atheism, a stance he adopted early in life.
H.P. Lovecraft dreamed up a grand vision of the cosmos, filled with beings much older and more powerful than humans who gazed upon us with indifference and cruelty. These otherworldly creatures had come into contact with Earth long before we evolved, according to Lovecraft, in the incomprehensible vastness of existence where human passions and desires are utterly meaningless. They fought with one another, enslaved other alien races, and even created new species to do their bidding or be their food.
Cthulhu, Azathoth, and Yog-Sothoth are the unspeakable names of the Old Gods that make up the heart of Lovecraft’s Cthulhu mythos – a loosely connected cannon which Lovecraft encouraged other writers to explore and develop with him, that has gone on to be one of literature’s most influential and successful creations. In my next column, I’ll tackle the intimidating cephalopod-esque deity’s inception, history, and influence on pop culture.
Until then… Stay scared.
Devan Sagliani is the author of the Zombie Attack! series, The Rising Dead, A Thirst For Fire, and the UNDEAD L.A. series. Devan also wrote the original screenplay for the movie HVZ: Humans Versus Zombies. Visit his website to learn more.