An artist's visual representation of Lovecraft's Elder God
byBenoît Stella CC BY-SA 3.0)
Lovecraft's World of Horror
His stories have influenced much of modern horror,
yet he died in poverty, a figure unknown but to a very few. Who
was this author whose terrifying, tentacled monsters have has
inspired popular culture from Hell Boy to Pirates of
the Caribbean? Who was H.P. Lovecraft?
Howard Phillips Lovecraft was born on August 20,
1890, in Providence, Rhode Island. His father, Scott Winfield
Lovecraft, was a traveling salesman handling jewelry and precious
metals. His mother, Sarah Susan Phillips, could trace her ancestry
a far back as 1631 and the Massachusetts Bay Colony.
Lovecraft clearly had a difficult time growing up.
When Howard was only 3 years old, his father became psychotic
(possibly as the result of syphilis), and had to be placed in
the Providence psychiatric institution until his death five years
later. Making things worse, Howard was a sickly child, who did
not regularly attend school until the age of eight. However, his
grandfather encouraged him to read and provided him with such
classic books as The Arabian Nights and children's editions
of the Iliad and the Odyssey. He also often told
young Howard gothic stories of horror of this own devising.
As a writer Lovecraft was a bit of a prodigy as
he began penning poems by age six. Fascinated with chemistry and
astronomy by age nine he publishing his own limited run magazine
The Scientific Gazette. He never graduated from high school,
however, as he had a "nervous breakdown" his final year and never
received a diploma. As an adult Lovecraft became a recluse, avoided
most social contact and never found regular employment after he
finished school. A mismanagement of his grandfather's estate left
him poor and he was to struggle financially for the rest of this
life. Lovecraft also suffered from sleep paralysis, a sleep disorder
where the person is paralyzed and suffers from terrifying hallucinations.
He claimed he felt he was assaulted at night by horrific "night
gaunts" which were probably a product of these hallucinations.
As you might guess, all this turmoil in his life
made Lovecraft a pretty unhappy person and much of it came out
in his writing. Perhaps his most famous work is The Call of
Cthulhu which the story of a cult which tries to revive the
demi-god monster, Cthulhu, from where he sleeps in the depths
of the sea despite the monster's total disregard for humanity
and the likelihood of his wakening will bring civilization to
an end. The short story contains so much of what is characteristic
of Lovecraft's work: a giant godlike monster with tentacles; primitive,
peoples with connections to the supernatural that civilized man
has forgotten, and the idea that the greater cosmos has a total
indifference to the fate of humanity.
Lovecraft published his first story, The Alchemist,
(for which he didn't get paid) in the United Amateur Press
Association in 1916. Several years in 1922 Lovecraft had his
novelette, Herbert West-Reanimator, serialized in the magazine
Home Brew. This time he got paid, but only five dollars
for each of the six installments.
Lovecraft was inspired by the American writer Edgar
Allen Poe and there are a number of parallels in their life stories.
Both were not really recognized as the great writers until after
their deaths. Both struggled financially for their entire lives.
Both past away in their 40's.
After his mother died in an institution in 1919,
Lovecraft met Sonia Greene while at a writer's convention of in
Boston. Despite his aunts disapproval they married and he moved
to her apartment in Brooklyn where she ran a successful hat shop.
In New York Lovecraft joined the so-called Kalem Club which gave
him a circle of intellectual and literary friends. They encouraged
him to submit his stories to such publications such as Weird
sketched Cthulhu in 1934.
When his wife lost her business and became ill,
he attempted to support her, but had few marketable skills and
could only find work as a low-level clerk. Green eventually recovered,
but was forced to move to Cincinnati, and later to Cleveland to
continue her career. Lovecraft did not go with her and lived unhappily
in Red Hook and Brooklyn Heights alone until he returned to Providence
Period in Providence
It was during this period that, despite his unhappiness,
Lovecraft was his at this most productive and produced many of
his most influential works. In September of 1926 he finished The
Call of Cthulhu. Next year, early in 1927, he finished his
only novel The Case of Charles Dexter Ward though it wasn't
published in his lifetime. In the story Ward is confined to an
insane asylum and upon his escape his doctor attempts to track
him down only to find Ward is not actually Ward, but a resurrected
ancestor of Ward, named Curwen who is a mass murder and alchemist.
Later that year Lovecraft also wrote the short story
The Colour Out of Space. While often we associate Lovecraft
with horror, the truth is that he also dabbled in science fiction.
In this story a meteorite lands in the New England country-side
and an alien entity slowly destroies the surrounding land and
drives a farmer and his family mad.
In 1928 Lovecraft penned The Dunwich Horror
in which cultists plan to open a gateway between our dimension
and the next that would allow Yog-Sothoth, a cosmic entity, to
enter our universe (with disastrous consequences for the human
race). The Dunwich Horror, along with The Call of Cthulhu,
are considered core stories in Lovecraft's Cthulhu Mythos.
The Whisperer in Darkness was published in
1931. In this novella Lovecraft tells the tale of a man living
in Townshend, Vermont, who finds himself besieged with the Mi-go,
an extraterrestrial race of fungoid alien creatures, who wish
to keep their presence on Earth a secret.
May 1924 issue of Weird Tales with short story Imprisoned
with the Pharaohs ghostwritten by H.P. Lovecraft.
In March of 1931 Lovecraft finished writing the
novella At the Mountains of Madness the story of explorers
who find the remains of a gigantic ancient alien city deep in
the Antarctic. At first they believe the city is dead but eventually
come in contact with some of its horrific survivors.
Lovecraft's novella The Shadow Over Innsmouth
(also part of the Cthulhu Mythos) was finished in December
of 1931. In the story the curious protagonist visits the decaying
fishing town of Innsmouth, Massachusetts, to discover that the
inhabitants are interbreeding with a fish-like frog men living
in the seas. The children of these matings appear human, but with
"queer narrow heads with flat noses and bulgy, stary eyes." As
time goes by these individuals become more and more fishlike,
eventually leaving the land to live their extended lives in the
depths of the sea. As the protagonist tries to leave the town
with knowledge of this secret, he chased by an angry mob, one
of the few examples of an action sequence written by Lovecraft.
Scholars have suggested one of themes of this story,
the slow devolving of man into lessor creatures, may have been
influenced by Lovecraft's own fear of losing his mind, as did
his parent's, who spent their last few years in a mental institution.
In fact, Lovecraft, it seems, feared many things.
Raised in isolated, primary Anglo-Saxon community he could not
abide foreigners or people of difference races or religions. While
many people these days find little to like in his xenophobia and
racism, these fears did drive his writing down different paths
other writers did not take.
In his novelette At the Mountains of Madness
his characters experience revulsion at finding themselves in an
ancient dead city in Antarctica populated by indescribable monsters.
Letters to friends suggest that this may well reflect the time
he spent in the Red Hook district of New York City with the "monstrous"
immigrants and peoples of different races he did not like or understand
living around him.
In The Lurking Fear Lovecraft's hero finds
the source of a series of murders is a family of inbreed, hillbillies
living underground who have regressed to almost apelike beasts.
Again there are parallels here to Lovecraft's fear of people he
did not feel comfortable with who seem to him almost like a lower
form of life.
for The Call of Cthulhu film released by the H. P.
Lovecraft Historical Society in 2005.
While never financially successful, Lovecraft was
well respected by other writers and maintained substantial correspondence
with his peers. Though never meeting him in person, Lovecraft
was especially close to Robert Ervin Howard, best known for his
short stories in the sword and sorcery subgenre about Conan
the Barbarian. Lovecraft was deeply affected by Howard's suicide
Other writers also employed Lovecraft as a ghost
writer. Zealia Bishop, a romance writer, hired him to write several
tales including the short story The Mound in which Lovecraft
brilliantly describes an ancient civilization existing under deep
underground in America's mid-west.
He was also hired by J. C. Henneberger, the founder
and owner of Weird Tales, to write a story in the first
person as Harry Houdini, the famous escape artist and magician.
The story, original titled, Under the Pyramids (but published
as, Imprisoned with the Pharaohs) tells of Houdini's kidnapping
by cultists in Egypt. In the story, Houdini later escapes after
witnessing sacrifices to a hippopotamus-sized, five-headed, tentacled
beast deep inside a secret underground temple. Houdini liked the
story so much he hired Lovecraft to work with him on several other
projects before the magician's death in 1926.
Lovecraft also encouraged other writers to make
use of items, creatures and locations from his Cthulhu Mythos,
in their own work. The fictional town of Arkham and its Miskatonic
University were often used by other authors along with the Necronomicon
(a fictional grimoire written by the "Mad Arab" Abdul Alhazred).
on Films and Gaming
Though Lovecraft was virtually unknown during his
lifetime, his popularity has slowly grown in the years after his
death from cancer in 1937. Filmmakers have turned many of his
stories into motion pictures such as The Dunwich Horror
(1970), Dagon (2001) and The Color Out of Space (2010).
He has also influenced the thinking and design on movies not made
directly from his works, such as Hellboy (2004).
Eldrich Horror, from Fantasy Flight Games,
is one of the board games that give the players a chance
to hunt Lovecraft's monsters.
His fantasy universe has also invaded the gaming
world with such board games as Eldritch Horror, Elder
Signs and Mansions of Madness where players can play
Lovecraft type characters charged with preventing the world from
being destroyed by Lovecraft type monsters. IF you want you can
even buy Cthulhu as a charming puppet.
Despite Lovecraft's influence on horror, he remains
a controversial figure. The World Fantasy Awards, established
in 1975, used a bust of Lovecraft as their award (nicknamed the
"Howard"). Concerns stemming from Lovecraft's racism and xenophobia,
however, caused the award to be changed in 2015 to a fantasy character.
What can we make of this strange man whose racism
and xenophobia also seemed to inspire his dark writing? We probably
need to admit that though Lovecraft was a brilliant author, he
was not without his flaws and sometimes we just need to accept
the people we admire often have feet of clay.
2016 Lee Krystek. All Rights Reserved.