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Lovecraft, H. P. (1890-1937)

Lovecraft, H. P. (1890-1937)

H. P. Lovecraft, by some estimates, is the greatest writer of horror fiction since Edgar Allan Poe. His influence on modern horror art has been enormous, despite his pulp fiction origins. The homage that modern horror writers (and filmmakers) continue to pay him emanated largely from the distinctly modern sensibility he brought to his fiction.

Howard Philips Lovecraft was born on August 20, 1890, in Providence, Rhode Island, the only child of Winfield Scott and Susan Philips Lovecraft. In 1893, Lovecraft's father was declared insane and committed to Butler's Hospital in Providence, where he died five years later. Lovecraft and his mother moved in with his maternal grandparents, where Lovecraft attended various Providence public schools. After his grandfather's death in 1904, the family's financial status underwent an immediate decline, and Lovecraft had a nervous breakdown in 1908, just prior to his high school graduation. Over the next five years, he would stay home, living the life of a reclusive autodidact and schooling himself in a multiplicity of subjects, including Roman history, chemistry, astronomy, and eighteenth-century life and letters.

Lovecraft's first foray into writing began at age sixteen with regular contributions of articles on astronomy to various local and statewide publications. In 1914, he joined the United Amateur Press Association, becoming an active member and contributor, self-publishing thirteen issues of his journal, The Conservative, from 1915 to 1923.

Lovecraft's first tales circulated among his amateur journalist friends, printed in such ephemeral publications as The United Amateur, The Vagrant, The Scot, The Wolverine, and The Tryout. He abandoned the world of amateur journalism in 1923 when the first and most important of the large-circulation pulps, Weird Tales, took notice of his talents. Unlike most other writers discovered while young, Lovecraft broke in at the age of thirty-three, becoming, as a consequence, the "old man" of fantasy fiction, a distinction he took to heart by encouraging in paternal fashion such younger talents as Robert Bloch, Fritz Leiber, and Frank Belknap Long. After his discovery by Weird Tales, story after story from his pen showed up in its pages, including such trademark tales as "Dagon," "The Tomb," "The Rats in the Walls," "The Call of Cthulhu," "Pickman's Model," "The Colour Out of Space," "The Dunwich Horror," and "The Whisperer in the Darkness." In 1927 his first novellas The Case of Charles Dexter Ward and The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath were written.

Lovecraft's life changed in other significant ways during the 1920s, besides his "discovery" as a fiction writer. In 1919 his mother was institutionalized, as his father had been, at Butler Hospital, where she died two years later. Not coincidentally, Lovecraft broke free geographically, traveling beyond the confines of Providence to Boston for his first conference of amateur journalists. His taste for travel and love of New England whetted by this excursion, he began to travel more regularly to Boston, New York, Portsmouth, Marblehead, and Newport. Summer trips took him to even further climes, including Quebec, Charleston, New Orleans, and Saint Augustine.

One of the more important events of the 1920s that would set the tone for how Lovecraft would wish to live was his short marriage to Sonia Greene, a fellow amateur journalist, with whom he lived in New York City for nearly two years. Her relocation to Cleveland for work and his inability to find any form of gainful employment in New York resulted in the marriage's dissolution and Lovecraft's return to Providence and bachelorhood.

In the 1930s, two important changes in Lovecraft's life occurred. His fictional output began to slow, while his politics changed from that of the classic conservative to the New Deal Democrat. The few efforts Lovecraft made to write original material under his own name in the 1930s produced excellent results. His novellas At the Mountains of Madness and The Shadow over Innsmouth were written back-to-back in 1931, while "The Shadow Out of Time" appeared in Astounding Stories in 1936. Unfortunately, his creative powers appeared to ebb as more of his efforts were spent rewriting or cowriting stories with lesser pulp-fiction writers like Hazel Heald, E. Hoffman Price, Duane Rimel, R. H. Barlow, William Lumley, and Kenneth Sterling.

On March 15, 1937, Lovecraft died at Jane Brown Memorial Hospital in Providene of intestinal cancer. His passing was noted by the many fans and loyal friends whom he had made in his lifetime. Beyond this small coterie, Lovecraft remained largely unknown. His reputation as a writer was revived years later by Donald Wandrei and August Derleth, both proteges of the "master" and founders of Arkham House, a press in Sauk City, Wisconsin, that published the work of fantasy and science-fiction writers who had benefited from Lovecraft's influence.

Lovecraft's rise to fame since has been a troubling one for academics and fans alike. For academics, that main source of trouble is the popularity of a writer whose talents were best captured by Jacques Barzun's statement, "How the frequently portentous but unintelligible H. P. Lovecraft has acquired a reputation as a notable performer is explained only by the willingness of some to take the intention for the deed and by a touching faith that words put together with confidence must have a meaning." For fans and supportive scholars, the most difficult obstacle to any appreciation of Lovecraft has been his unbridled racism and classism, both of which are deeply implied in his tales of racial degeneration and miscegenation. On the other hand, many continue to credit Lovecraft with applying a modern sensibility to the world of horror by highlighting in a way that few of his predecessors had—barring Poe—the materialist foundations of modern terror.

—Bennett Lovett-Graff

Further Reading:

Cannon, Peter. H. P. Lovecraft. Boston, Twayne, 1989.

Joshi, S. T. H. P. Lovecraft. West Warwick, Rhode Island, Necronomicon Press, 1997.

Levy, Maurice. Lovecraft: A Study in the Fantastic. Translated by S.T. Joshi. Detroit, Wayne State University Press, 1988.

St. Armand, Barton Levi. The Roots of Horror in the Fiction of H. P. Lovecraft. Elizabethtown, New Jersey, Dragon Press, 1977.

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