‘A Literature of Cosmic Fear’: An Introduction to H.P. Lovecraft

On Halloween, a new post for the Wordsworth Editions Blog…

A blasted heath where nothing grows yet dead trees seem strangely animated; an abandoned well that glows with a colour that has no name; a disastrous expedition to Antarctica written by a survivor only to warn others to stay away; cathedral-sized buildings from before the dawn of mankind where the geometry doesn’t make sense; a pulp writer found dead at his desk, a look of frozen horror on his face; sailors discover a drowned city and half a world away an artist begins to sculpt a hideous figure while an architect goes mad; something not quite human breaks into an academic library to steal an unholy book; human brains are removed and placed in cannisters for transport to other worlds; the dead scream and a doctor vanishes; alien gods, ancient and terrible, dream beneath the sea… Enter, if you dare, the weird world of H.P. Lovecraft.

If you know Lovecraft’s fiction, there’s nothing you need from me. In fact, you almost certainly know it better than I do. Devotees of Lovecraft tend to be as encyclopaedic as he was, and several academics have forged successful careers out of interpreting his work, life, and letters. His ‘Cthulhu Mythos’ is pored over like a religious text, with references to it in Aleister Crowley’s Book of the Law and The Satanic Rituals byAnton LaVey and Michael A. Aquino. There are at least half a dozen books in print claiming to be the real Necronomicon of the ‘Mad Arab’ alchemist and necromancer Abdul Alhazred – another of Lovecraft’s inventions. Lovecraft’s influence over 20th century horror, supernatural and science fiction is vast, with symbols from his work spread out across popular culture, from death metal and Alan Moore’s League of Extraordinary Gentlemen to Scooby Doo and Gravity Falls. There are currently over 30 films based on his stories, most notably the cult Re-Animator series directed by Stuart Gordon and Brian Yuzna (who also adapted Lovecraft’s 1920 story ‘From Beyond’), and many more that take their inspiration from him, such as Sam Raimi’s Evil Dead saga. In gothic literature, Lovecraft is the equal of Poe, to whom, he wrote, ‘we owe the modern horror-story in its final and perfected state’; he has no other peer. And their collective influence can be felt in the crimson line of great American horror writing that runs from Robert Bloch (who was a friend of Lovecraft’s), through Richard Matheson, to Stephen King. In the Geek Kingdom, if you want to suss out a so-called ‘horror expert’, check out what they have to say about H.P. Lovecraft.

But, as I said, I’m not preaching to the converted. You know how wild and engaging – not to say disturbing – these stories are, and chances are you own them all already. No, I’m talking to the folk who know the name, and probably some of the movies, and have maybe read a few of the stories in anthologies without committing to the corpus. As we swing around to Halloween again, in a world that becomes more ominous, pestilential, and apocalyptic by the year, I reach out, like the creatures of the Necronomicon in Evil Dead and whisper, ‘Join us.’

It is not just in imagination and statue that Howard Phillips Lovecraft (1890–1937) matches Edgar Allan Poe. He also shares the tragic but not unfamiliar distinction in literature of not being widely read, recognised, or renumerated in his own lifetime. His publication history was limited almost entirely to amateur and pulp magazines, leaving him virtually unknown outside a small but dedicated following of other pulp writers, and he was never able to support himself financially by writing. Also, like Poe, he was physically frail and emotionally vulnerable, and died far too soon.

Lovecraft was born in Providence, Rhode Island in 1890 – where he remained for the majority of his life – the only child of wealthy parents, his mother, Susie, being the daughter of the property and mining baron, Whipple Van Buren Phillips. When Lovecraft was two, his father was committed to Butler Hospital (a private mental institution) after a psychotic breakdown most likely caused by late-stage syphilis. He never recovered and died in 1898. Lovecraft was raised in his maternal grandparent’s home, where he was doted on by his grief-stricken mother. His grandmother died when he was six, and he later wrote that the mourning process ‘terrified’ him. Lovecraft’s grandfather was a cultured Anglophile who epitomised the east coast ‘old money’ set. He encouraged his grandson to read widely, introducing him to classical and English literature as well as gothic fiction and the Arabian Nights, guilty pleasures which he adapted into bedtime stories for the boy. As business took his grandfather away often, the pair began a thriving correspondence, a habit Lovecraft retained into adulthood, often with people deemed close friends he never met in person, writing an estimated 100,000 letters over his short life. As an infant, Lovecraft was incredibly literate; this interest in words was soon supplemented by a passion for science, particularly astronomy, and by age twelve he was contributing to the Rhode Island Journal of Astronomy. Ill health often kept him out of school, and he was principally educated by family, private tutors, and a lot of self-directed learning, making him idiosyncratically brilliant but also shy, withdrawn, and socially awkward.

The turn of the century saw the gradual erosion of the family’s wealth, until Whipple’s business collapsed in 1904. Whipple died a few months later and, unable to maintain the family home, Lovecraft’s mother moved herself and her son into a small duplex house, letting the last of the servants go and living off a modest income generated by the remnants of the Phillips estate, which was soon shrunk further after some disastrous investments by her brother. Lovecraft later wrote that this was the darkest period of his life, and that only his scientific studies and curiosity prevented him from taking his own life. His relationship with his mother was close but complex. Much of his ill-defined ‘health problems’ were ‘nervous disorders’ that were almost certainly exacerbated by his mother’s cossetting. (Later, when America joined the Great War, she brought all her remaining social influence to bear to keep her son out of the Army and the National Guard, though he wanted very much to volunteer.) In 1908 he suffered some sort of breakdown which interrupted his high school education and prevented his planned entry to Brown University – he never took a degree. ‘I could hardly bear to see or speak to anyone,’ he later wrote, describing his anxiety and depression, ‘and liked to shut out the world by pulling down dark shades and using artificial light.’ His mother’s constant remarks about his ‘hideous’ appearance also appears to be the root of a lifetime of body dysmorphia, although when neighbours believed that the two frequently and loudly fought, what they were hearing was in fact Lovecraft and his mother charging about the house performing Shakespeare. Susie eventually followed her husband into Butler Hospital in 1919, no longer recognising people she knew and beset by visions of ‘weird and fantastic creatures that rushed out from behind buildings and from corners at dark.’ Lovecraft visited her regularly until her death there in 1921 and once more considered suicide, though his increasing involvement with the amateur writing scene pulled him through. Free from Susie’s influence he become notably more outgoing, attending literary readings and gatherings, and forming friendships for the first time in his life. He even managed a relationship with the pulp fiction writer and amateur publisher, Sonia Greene, whom he married in 1924 although his surviving family did not approve. (Sonia was Jewish.) He moved to New York with Sonia, where he met Edwin Baird, the inaugural editor of the pulp magazine Weird Tales, in which many of his best stories were subsequently published. Work took Sonia away much of the time, leaving Lovecraft alone and despondent. In his short story ‘He’ (Weird Tales, 1926), the anonymous narrator deeply regrets his move from New England to New York City: ‘I had looked for poignant wonder and inspiration’ but ‘I had found instead only a sense of horror and oppression which threatened to master, paralyze, and annihilate me.’ Lovecraft returned to his beloved Providence at the end of the year, never to leave again, and he and Sonia eventually separated in 1933.

Lovecraft had begun writing fiction in 1904, the year of his family’s financial collapse, with ‘The Beast in the Cave’, a short story about a man lost in the Mammoth Cave in Kentucky with a tidy twist at the end in which the influence of Poe is apparent. This was published in The Vagrant in 1918, an independent magazine produced by and for amateur journalists. This was followed by ‘The Alchemist’ in 1908 (which saw print sooner, in the United Amateur in 1916), the tale of a fatal curse passed down through generations, again concluding with a crisp gothic epiphany. This was the era of the pulp magazines – christened after the cheap wood pulp paper on which they were printed – which the young Lovecraft consumed along with his more formal literary and scientific reading. His way into this medium as a writer was through the letters pages, to which he contributed many observations and critiques, applying the tools of literary criticism to popular fiction, a critical practice decades ahead of academic literary scholarship. In 1911, a letter from Lovecraft appeared in the pulp magazine Argosy criticising one of their regular contributors, Frederick J. Jackson, sparking a feud that the editors gleefully published between both writers and their supporters. This spirited critical dialogue attracted the attention of Edward F. Daas of the United Amateur Press Association, who invited both men to join. Amateur press associations (APAs) were the herald of fanzines, enabling readers and contributors to share and discuss their common interests in a single forum; these were the bulletin boards and social media of their day, often associated with genre film and fiction. Lovecraft threw himself into amateur journalism, having something of an upper-class disdain for commercial writing, becoming the chairman of the UAPA Department of Public Criticism in 1914, then vice-president of the association in 1915 and president in 1917. This gave Lovecraft an outlet for his fiction, including ‘The Tomb’, another Poe-like tale of a young man obsessed with a mausoleum, and ‘Dagon’ (both 1917), which foreshadows ‘The Call of Cthulhu’ (Weird Tales, 1928), introducing many of the concepts and themes that would dominant his mature fiction. (The ‘Esoteric Order of Dagon’ later turns up in Lovecraft’s 1931 novella The Shadow over Innsmouth.) He also wrote his first science fiction story around this time, ‘Beyond the Wall of Sleep’ (1919), inspired by his lifelong fascination with the power of dreams, and positing a form of long-range telepathic communication that feels like the origin of the horrible connection between earth and the alien outpost of Yuggoth in the victims of his famous later stories ‘The Whisperer in Darkness’ (Weird Tales, 1931) and ‘The Haunter of the Dark’ (Weird Tales, 1936). Lovecraft’s science fiction would reach its creative zenith with the beautiful ‘The Colour Out of Space’ (Amazing Stories, 1927), although as the Old Ones on one level represent the threat of alien invasion, it could be argued that the entire Cthulhu Mythos is broadly sci-fi.

It was likely shyness rather than snobbery that kept Lovecraft in the amateur publications, just as his enthusiasm for science and literature and his undoubtedly brilliant intellect was shared with friends through endless and lengthy correspondence, never in person. Then he graduated to the gaudy and cheap pulp magazines, which were at the time largely dismissed as throwaway popular culture and were not made to last. These were where many notable 20th century genre authors did their apprenticeships, such as Ray Bradbury, Robert Bloch, Edgar Rice Burroughs, Raymond Chandler… and after the war, Philip K. Dick, Harlan Ellison, Arthur C. Clarke, Isaac Asimov, Robert A. Heinlein, and Michael Moorcock, all of whom moved on to bigger and better things. Perhaps Lovecraft would have done the same, had he lived, but while active he showed no sign of wanting an agent or a more mainstream publisher. There is something tragic and beautiful about the quality and scholarship of his work, all given away either for free or for tiny one-off fees to a small and temporary audience. One is left with a sense that were Lovecraft writing today he would just be posting it all on Reddit…

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1 thought on “‘A Literature of Cosmic Fear’: An Introduction to H.P. Lovecraft”

  1. Really interesting article about a writer I knew absolutely nothing about.  Fascinating.

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